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Bedside manner: why it's more important than ever

March 5, 2021
A provider practice good bedside manner with her patient

A note from the author:

I am not a doctor, a nurse, or medical professional. So, what qualifies me to speak about bedside manner and its importance?

I’m a patient.

I have had the opportunity to see lots of doctors over the past 12 months and it’s allowed me to reflect on how I define a great doctor or medical professional. Ultimately, it boils down to bedside manner and the doctor-patient relationship we did or did not establish.

This is just one patient’s perspective. You can take it or leave it, but my goal is to at least make you consider a few things before you enter your next exam room.

Strong bedside manner is critical to your success

Whether you are just starting out in your medical career or have been practicing medicine for over 30 years, a strong bedside manner is critical to your success as a physician.

Your ability to communicate with your patients with empathy, understanding, and in terms the patient understands creates a strong foundation for a lasting patient-provider relationship.

Numerous studies show that when a doctor has a strong relationship with their patient, the patient is more likely to adhere to their care plans leading to healthier outcomes.

Here are a few things to consider when evaluating your bedside manner skills.

A cartoon illustrating strong bedside manner

"I'm happy to see you, too."

Know a patient's name when you enter the room

What strikes me as the best experiences are those where the doctor comes prepared for the visit. I had the same gynecologist for nearly 20 years, and I loved her! Every appointment she would walk through the exam door and immediately say, while making eye contact, “Allison, how are you doing, what have you been up to?” It’s not because she really knew who I was – the reality is that she probably saw 30-40 patients a day.

No, I suspect that it was a strategy she used with all her patients to make them feel important, make them feel welcome, and to put them at ease. She knew my name before she entered the door. She didn’t have to look at a chart or consult her computer screen before addressing me.

Preparing those little details before she walked through the door immediately created a feeling of mutual respect and a stronger doctor-patient relationship. Take a minute to review the patient chart before you open the door.

Body language impacts bedside manner

As soon as you enter the room, a patient begins assessing your body language. It is a key indicator on how well the visit is going to go. If you walk in, go straight to your computer, and don’t make eye contact or acknowledge your patient, the appointment is off to a bad start. The patient is going to feel unimportant, like they are an inconvenience to you, and rushed.

Instead, acknowledge the patient and then sit down. Speaking from experience, sitting down has an incredibly calming effect, but it also creates the impression that I’m your most important priority in that moment.

A provider using good bedside manner by holding a patient's hand

If I feel that I have your full attention, I am going to be more open and honest about what has brought me in for my appointment. That will lead to a more complete assessment and a better structured care plan.

It also gives you the opportunity to observe me—the patient. Are my arms crossed? Fists clenched? Do I have an expression of dread and despair on my face? You can use these body language cues to influence your approach with the patient. If you noticed I’m stressed, you can ask me about my family, work, or what I like to do in my spare time. That quick little diversion can help me relax setting the stage for a better visit outcome.

Here’s a great example of how understanding and interpreting body language has an impact. One of my relatives recently went in for a CT scan to check for blood clots in her lungs. When she arrived at the outpatient facility for her appointment, she was in a full-blown panic attack. She had barely been out of the house since the pandemic started and the isolation had made her more anxious than normal.

She also suffers from severe asthma and COPD and wearing a mask made her feel like her breathing was even more restricted.  Plus, she walks with the assistance of cane and was struggling to make it into the facility. In short, she was a hot mess when she checked in for her appointment.

The tech that was going to be administering the CT scan picked up on her anxiety. Instead of rushing her in for the appointment, she came out sat next to her and held her hand (despite physical distancing requirements). She worked with her to regulate her breathing and heart rate and helped her relax. They chatted for a few minutes about the weather and other non-medical related topics. She got her a wheelchair, so she didn’t need to strain to make it to the procedure room. The empathy the tech showed her patient saved that critically important appointment and allowed the exam to proceed.

Pay attention to body language—yours and your patients.

Make a patient feel like their opinion matters

You are the doctor. You’ve spent years in school, residency, and practice honing your skills. You know way more than I could ever possibly comprehend. But I have WebMD (your worst enemy). And you can bet that I have researched my symptoms and have a very definite point of view on what my problem is before I come into your office or ER. This is where a delicate touch and good communication skills come in handy.

Like me, I think most patients realize a doctor’s opinion is better than any research we’ve done on the internet. However, you should still respect the opinion of your patients and allow them to present their theories. The patient at least needs to know you are concerned enough about the symptoms and their diagnosis that you are willing to consider their theories. Then, kindly and without being condescending, explain why you disagree using facts to back up your position.

Ultimately, all these tips come down to having one essential skill – excellent communication. Think of communication as another procedure or technique you need to learn and constantly practice.

Make eye contact to improve your bedside manner

The patient can’t see if you are smiling under your mask, but you should continue to smile. Smiling creates a natural light in your eyes and if you are maintaining good eye contact your smile will come through. Eye contact, as mentioned previously, also makes your patient feel like your top priority.

Practice active listening to help your bedside manner

Now more than ever your patient needs to know that you are hearing them. Listen for verbal cues that the patient might be holding something back or for signs of stress and anxiety. Repeat what you have heard to confirm that you are listening. Even if you are physically distanced, lean into the conversation. It reinforces to the patient that you are paying attention.

In addition to acknowledging what you are hearing from the patient, words of encouragement are also critically important. Making statements like “I am here for you” or “I am going to do everything I can to make you better” provides the hope and optimism your patients are seeking. Plus, it paves the way for the way for a good rapport.

Bedside manner is a critical component to your success as a provider and practice. Follow these suggestions to create happier patients and to improve their patient journey.

One last note: The adoption of virtual visits has created a new category called webside manner. In person or online, always remember the importance of these key relationship principles.

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