It’s not just about feelings. When physicians fail to show patients compassion, it can have a big impact on their mental and physical health.
Nothing makes a doctor’s visit more discouraging than an unempathetic physician.
Whether you’re receiving preventive care, or treatment for an acute or chronic condition, feeling compassion from your doctor goes a long way.
“Your relationship with your doctor should be based on mutual respect. You are dealing with high stakes here. This is your healthcare,” Anthony J. Orsini, DO, neonatologist at Winnie Palmer Hospital in Orlando, Florida, told Healthline.
“It’s very important for you to understand and feel a bond with your physician so when you leave the hospital or doctor’s office you fully understand what’s going on,” he said.
Orsini, who’s also the president of BBN, an organization dedicated to training healthcare professionals about compassionate communication, conducted a study in Winnie Palmer Hospital’s NICU unit, one of the largest in the nation.
The study showed that compassion training for medical staff improves a patient’s hospital experience by 60 percent.
“This is a significant change. In the ‘It’s All in the Delivery’ program that I run, we show nurses and doctors how they can form a trusting relationship with a patient in just a few minutes,” said Orsini.
“I believe doctors and nurses are genuinely compassionate people. Expressing that compassion is where they fall short sometimes either due to lack of training [in medical school] or because they get caught up in the increasing demands of modern healthcare,” he added.
The demands he points out include increased administrative work.
Because nurses and doctors are forced to become more task-oriented to meet these demands, he says it’s easy to forget to take the time to communicate with patients.
“You can’t be task-oriented and compassionate. They go against each other,” Orsini said. “The key to breaking the cycle is for physicians and nurses to not allow themselves to be task-oriented and to remind themselves of the compassion they have within.”
But, while Orsini helps healthcare providers tap into their inner compassion, what can you — the patient — do if you encounter a lack of empathy from your doctor?
Feel empowered to make a change. Then act on it.
Although your particular diagnosis or situation may be routine to your doctor, it’s certainly personal and unique to you.
“Sometimes your doctor may forget that, so be polite, but be your own advocate and share your feelings with your doctor,” Orsini said. “Tell them that you feel rushed or that you don’t understand what they are saying.”
He also suggests asking your doctor to explain your condition in simple terms first, and medical terms after.
“We teach nurses and doctors to do this. We also teach them to tell the patient that they will write down the medical term because when today’s patient hears a medical term, their mind immediately tries to spell it so they can go home and Google it,” Orsini said. “While they’re trying to figure out how to spell a word, they don’t hear what the physician is saying.”
The tone a doctor displays is also something to point out.
For instance, if your doctor tells you that you need to lose weight, the way in which they say it makes all the difference.
“Saying it in a particular manner and using words and non-verbal language that shows compassion, such as sitting, facial expressions, and particular words, can make the difference between the patient feeling insulted or feeling like they have a partner in their healthcare,” Orsini said.
While many doctors stand up when they talk to patients, Orsini says to ask yours to sit.
“You should really expect their undivided attention. Asking them to sit down will slow them down and remind them that this is a one-to-one conversation,” he said. “There are studies that have shown that hospitals can improve the patient experience by simply asking their doctors and nurses to sit down every time they speak with a patient.”
He adds that sitting down doesn’t take much longer than if the doctor stood up, yet the patient’s perception is that their doctor stayed longer in the room.
“When I give seminars on this, I get the same comment from healthcare providers who say, ‘I don’t have time to sit down.’ I tell them, ‘Actually, you’re going to save time by sitting down because the patient is going to feel like you spent more time with them.'”
If you find your doctor talking to you about important information while they multitask, such as sitting at their computer and typing information into your electronic medical record, politely get them to stop.
“You can say, ‘Doctor, I’ll wait until you’re done doing what you’re doing and we can talk one-on-one,'” said Orsini. “Usually when a doctor or nurse has fallen into that task-oriented trap, if a patient reminds them of it, it will usually snap them out of it and the patient will get a good response.”
If you want to report a healthcare provider’s behavior to a hospital, Orsini says one way to do so is to respond to patient satisfaction surveys called The Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems (CAHPS).
“Most hospitals have whole departments dedicated to improving their scores and the patient experience. Not only do those scores affect reimbursement, but also patient loyalty and outcomes, which means you have a voice when you receive the survey, so fill it out and be very honest,” he said.
Most hospitals also have a department dedicated to addressing patient concerns. These departments might be called the Patient Experience or Patient Advocacy department. Call, email, or write a letter to your hospital’s department.
“In 2019, patient satisfaction and patient experience is such a hot topic that hospitals are taking these types of complaints more seriously than ever,” Orsini said.
If you had a bad encounter with your personal physician, in addition to telling your doctor and their partners (if they have any), Orsini says to rate them on online review sites, such as HealthGrades.com, Vitals.com, and RateMDs.com.
If you’ve tried everything to get your doctor to show compassion and nothing has worked, it’s time to find a new one.
“You deserve a physician that you feel you have a relationship with. If your doctor is not giving you that and you’re unlikely to follow his or her instructions, then move on,” Orsini said.
Rest assured there are plenty of doctors who care about building good relationships with their patients.
“This is why you see physicians who have very successful practices and those who don’t,” said Orsini. “It’s rarely due to one being better technically than the other. The successful practices are those who can communicate and form genuine relationships with their patients. Physicians who are unable to learn how to communicate find themselves not getting reimbursed as much and their practices dwindling.”