Expert Health Articles

Bedside Manner

Nancy ProctorNancy Proctor

Patient Experience Manager & Educator

The general definition for the term bedside manner is the way a health care professional handles a patient in a doctor patient relationship. My guess is if you asked anyone born after 1980 what bedside manner is, then they would be hard pressed to explain it. This is in large part due to the fact that, according to Dr. Thomas Lee, chief medical officer at Press Ganey, “technology has accounted for the greatest changes in medicine in the last four decades concluding that our myopic focus on technology in some ways contributes to our inability to personally connect, be compassionate and caring.”

In the debate over high touch or high tech, technology won out until the early 2000’s. That was when those of us in the health care industry realized we didn’t have to choose, we could be both high tech and high touch, but it required a culture change that included a focus on quality service as well as clinical quality. Over the last ten years health care has molded its own version of service in an environment where most would rather not need to be serviced at all. Admittedly no one wants to be suffering enough to need a trip to the doctor or hospital. With that in mind as we shifted the paradigm we realized that in addition to unavoidable suffering there were some avoidable sufferings we might cause, due to a lack of caring, connection and compassion, that we could minimize in order to create the most optimal patient experience. Service quality is then zero tolerance for avoidable suffering.

Why is this important? 

Research since the mid-1990’s shows that when a patient/family perceive and receive great service the result is increased compliance, better clinical outcomes, quicker recovery, increased immune function, decreased heart rate and blood pressure, an increased pain threshold and decreased medication errors – a hard bottom line to something once considered nice but not necessary. The key is connecting with your patient and delivering individualized treatment to optimize care and delivering the right thing for the right patient when and where they need it.

If I were to teach bedside manner today I would use Ellen Reiss’ acronym of empathy as she explained that empathy is the key to connection.

  • Making eye contact
  • Interpreting the muscles in facial expressions
  • Being aware of our posture whether it’s open and inviting or closed and intimidating
  • Understanding someone’s affect and tone of voice
  • Hearing the whole person
  • Realizing your response and understanding that a person will mirror our behavior and treat us the way they feel they are being treated

To connect with others and practice empathy is to be face to face, sharing and interpreting words and emotions not text messages and emoticons. As we in the health care industry strive to excel in connection, caring and compassion we know that bedside manner is not just for doctors anymore but for every human interaction, and in health care the payoff is increased wellness, mutual accountability for optimal health and productive, positive relationships.