Bedside Manners Matter in Health Care

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My guess is that every cancer survivor has his or her own list of negative interactions that took place while in treatment. Unfortunately, many (like me) were too knocked down by the diagnosis to stand up for their right to be treated with respect and dignity.

"It is not a case we are treating; it is a living, palpitating, alas, too often suffering fellow creature." - John Brown

A 2015 article in U.S. News magazine had the following heading, Why Nice Doctors Are Better Doctors: A good bedside manner could mean the difference between illness and health. The gist of the piece was that, "Your doctor’s empathy, or the ability to stand in your shoes, not only deepens the relationship between the two of you and makes you feel more satisfied with your visit, but also has measurable effects on your health." As a psychotherapist trained in the arts of empathy, listening and unconditional positive regard, and a survivor of cancer, I would like to add a professional, "No, duh!"

After clearing the initial hurdles of discovery, diagnosis, surgery, chemo and radiation therapies, I considered penning a work entitled "Who Cares?" The book was going to be a summation of the things I heard and experienced over the months of recovery that, frankly, freaked me out. I decided against the effort for two reasons; the first being that my oncologist and his team were professional, caring and sensitive to my needs and I didn’t want to be seen as ungrateful. The second reason I held off was that I was not ready to relive all the interactions I had with other health providers where that was not the case.

Six years removed from the experience and goaded on by the tales of other patients who’ve suffered the added insult of poor professional behavior, I now feel it’s time to point out the obvious. Surely, I’m not the first person to take note of the fact that the second word in the title of health care professional is, in fact, care. My guess is that every cancer survivor has his or her own list of negative interactions that took place while in treatment. Some may have even said something to address and/or correct the situation. However, many (like me) were too knocked down by the diagnosis to stand up for their right to be treated with respect and dignity.

The following is a true story:

My wife and I arrived at a local university hospital to await my appointment with the surgeon scheduled to perform the thoracic surgery to remove the tumor growing in my chest. Checking in at the reception desk, we were given a number and told we would be called back in short order. Let me restate that, we were given a number! Waiting nervously, we exchanged multiple jokes about being at the deli counter. Once called back, we were greeted by a physician’s assistant who seemed to grasp the enormity of the moment and did her best, it's-going-to-be-OK interview. Next, the surgeon joined us and, with absolutely no sense of anything, placed the tip of his index finger at the top of my chest and drawing it down to my sternum said, "We’re going to cut from here to here and," drawing an arc over the tip of my left chest, "remove this part of your lung."

I remember very little from that point on as his next statement was that my type of cancer was often related to testicular cancer. Without so much of a “How do you do?” he proceeded with the exam, surrounded by a bevy of interns, all of whom were, no doubt, impressed with his laser-like focus on my family jewels.Angry, shocked and bewildered, my wife and I left the appointment and made two very important decisions. The first was that, at some point in the future, we were both going to laugh about this and that there was no way I was going under this guy’s knife.

I wish I could say that the above anecdote was the one and only time we ran into a situation where we were alarmed — rather than calmed — by a medical encounter. From a casual disregard for my anxiety in the face of this dreaded illness, to the blatant lack of compassion, the number of times we ran into trained professionals who seemed oblivious to the person behind the patient was disheartening.

I've heard stories about how a health care provider has an awakening after he or she becomes a patient and discovers first-hand the negative impact of poor bedside manners. While these stories always spark interest, they are a sad commentary on what is, too often, taken for granted in the medical profession — there are people attached to diagnoses. One has to ask if professionals really needs to have a health crisis in order to understand that the first instrument in their medical bags is their attitude.

Personally, I’m not asking them to "feel my pain," but it’s comforting to see some awareness of my suffering. I’m not talking about the overcorrection of the Patch Adams effect. Honestly, I don’t want my doctor coming at me with a red nose and clown shoes. I would like, however, if he or she approached me in ways that do not make me look or feel foolish for having the audacity to expect to be treated with consideration.

Imagine not having to choose between a person’s technical skill and their compassion. Imagine being able to keep one’s dignity after putting on the inherently humiliating garment known as a hospital gown. I suggest that right under the obligatory signs that remind health care workers to practice universal precautions while seeing a patient, we add a line that reminds them to engage in the universally accepted practice of good manners. In that way, we can stay safe from infections, while at the same time avoid contact with toxic attitudes that are dangerous to our health.