How doctors can improve patient interactions

by Lockup Doc

Physicians learn a lot about many different topics, both in medical training and in practice. However, there are some life lessons that we never learn as well as when we become patients ourselves.

When I was 13 or 14 years old, I regularly interacted with 2 different physicians with disparate interpersonal styles. Little did I know then that these seemingly meaningless encounters would indelibly shape my own beliefs about how people should treat each other. Ironically, many years later the experiences would help guide me as a physician in my interactions with my own patients.

For a couple of years I was the regular patient of a dermatology clinic. Two dermatologists ran the practice together, and in order for me to get an appointment that worked with my family’s schedule, occasionally I would need to alternate seeing each of them. I’ll refer to one of them as “Dr. A” and the other as “Dr. F.”

I was somewhat shy as an adolescent, and sitting in an exam room wearing only a gown and underwear always made me a little anxious.

However, any unease I may have experienced evaporated when Dr. A entered the room. He politely knocked, awaited my response, and entered the room with a smile on his face. “Hi ___, how are you today?” he’d say as he put out his hand to shake mine. He didn’t spend an excessive amount of time with me, but he did put effort into making small talk. He never examined me without first talking with me for a couple of minutes. He asked me about the medication I was taking and how it was working. He asked me if I had any questions.

Even though I was only a kid, he treated me as if I were an adult. He seemed genuinely interested in me as a person. I felt respected.

I mattered. He cared.

My experience with Dr. F was quite the opposite. Sitting in the cold examining room feeling vulnerable and dreading the encounter, I’d hear a quick knock on the door, and without delay, it opened. Dr. F would waltz into the room with a face devoid of expression. He’d robotically mumble an incomprehensible monosyllabic greeting resembling caveman-speak. He never extended his hand to shake mine. Other than briefly asking me about my progress, he barely spoke. Within 30 seconds of entering the room he examined me. He then wrote out more prescriptions and made his exit.

I would leave my appointments with him feeling disappointed and disrespected.

He didn’t care. I didn’t matter.

Now, I do realize that physicians are fallible human beings. We all make mistakes, and we all have our bad days. I’ve noticed that for myself, I’m most likely to have difficulty emulating Dr. A when I am overwhelmingly busy, behind schedule, and stressed. When a person is sleep-deprived and doesn’t have time to go to the bathroom or eat, he or she tends to get into survival mode, and exhibiting a compassionate demeanor seems to require the selflessness of a long-deceased saint.

Despite the challenges of modeling Dr. A’s style all the time, I believe that some of us practicing medicine could gain a lot for ourselves and our patients by attempting to do so. In my opinion, our patients would feel more at ease and more satisfied with our efforts to help them. They would probably be more likely to follow our medical advice. We doctors, I believe, would probably be more satisfied with our work as well. All because of treating them respectfully as though they mattered.

So, what I would like to know from you, whether you are a patient and/or a doctor: Do you feel respected by your doctor?

What specifically have you liked or not liked about how some physicians have interacted with you? What advice do you have for how physicians could improve their interactions with patients?

The author is a psychiatrist who blogs at Lockup Doc.

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