How to improve doctors' bedside manner

New initiatives are encouraging doctors to be better listeners and more sensitive to patients.

Story highlights

  • Doctors can be viewed as brusque, condescending or inconsiderate
  • Payment initiatives and patient expectations are encouraging compassion

A doctor's training hasn't historically focused on sensitivity. And too often, while juggling heavy workloads and high stress, they can be viewed as brusque, condescending or inconsiderate.

A 2011 study, for instance, found barely more than half of recently hospitalized patients said they experienced compassion when getting health care, despite widespread agreement among doctors and patients that kindness is valuable and important.
But payment initiatives and increasing patient expectations are slowly forcing changes, encouraging doctors to be better listeners and more sensitive to patients' needs.
    "We train people to ask the question, 'What's the matter?' We train toward diagnosis," said Martha Hayward, who leads public and patient engagement efforts at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit. "We don't train toward lifestyle understanding."

    Responding to patient concerns

    Many medical centers across the country are striving to improve doctors' bedside manner. Even some physicians in private practice are working to improve.
    Much of the motivation is financial. Under the 2010 health law, Medicare payments to hospitals can be affected by patient satisfaction surveys.
    The trend is also fueled by consumer demand. As patients pick up an increasing share of the cost of care, they're becoming more particular about quality and experience and choosing doctors accordingly.
    The University of Michigan, the Cleveland Clinic and some Catholic health systems are among medical systems experimenting with techniques to encourage physicians to be more responsive, said Tim Vogus, an associate professor of management at Vanderbilt U