With healthcare employers increasingly measuring patient satisfaction levels and rewarding their employees for providing high-quality customer service, health professionals are realizing a good bedside manner is more important than ever. Good bedside manners not only improve interactions with patients, but also advance health professionals' careers. Evidence suggests those who have strong relationships with their patients are less likely to get sued, and may be more likely to move up the professional ranks.
Physicians who communicate well are less likely to be sued for malpractice than poor communicators, says Dr. Greg Schneider, assistant professor of family practice and community medicine at UT Southwestern Medical School at Dallas. “There is a clear association between rapport with patients and incidence of lawsuits,” Schneider says. In addition, Schneider has observed situations where intuitive physicians who have the ability to connect with patients thrive in a group medical practice, while less-personable physicians flounder.
In hospital settings, health professionals who effectively relate to patients and families are also rewarded. At Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago, employees' performance appraisals include an evaluation of soft skills like respect, courtesy, listening and anticipating patients' needs. The hospital offers skill-building opportunities for nurses and other employees on topics such as how to keep families best informed of their loved ones' conditions.
“I think there has been a much stronger emphasis on the service aspect of the whole healthcare experience,” says Maureen Mahoney, a nurse who is the corporate manager for service excellence at Children's Memorial Hospital. The best way for health workers to learn good bedside manners is by example, she says. “Our leaders need to be good role models for what good bedside manner looks like. You don't necessarily learn some of this in school, but it really makes a difference for patients and families.”
Can Manners Be Taught?
Opinions differ on whether bedside manner can be taught. “I think [it] can be taught, to an extent, but it does depend a little bit on the raw material,” Schneider says. “I think, ultimately, if you can get someone to appreciate the importance of compassion and coming to an understanding of a patient, they will be able to develop bedside manner. You can teach them some skills in terms of ways to say things and ways to approach difficult topics.” For example, physicians need to be reminded to eliminate medical jargon and check to make sure patients understand what they're being told.
Medical students do receive some formal training in bedside manner, Schneider notes. During the first few years of medical school, students conduct practice physicals with volunteer patients or actors. The sessions are videotaped or audiotaped, and students receive feedback on their approach to patients. Also, medical students are encouraged to observe practicing clinicians in action.
The bottom line is that health professionals with good bedside manners may be happier in their jobs, experts say. Mahoney, who has been at Children's Memorial Hospital since 1984, says her most memorable experiences occurred during her days as a bedside nurse. “You really have an ability to impact patients' and families' experiences with your organization,” she says. “You can help them heal. Sometimes you feel you don't have the time to sit and have conversations, but you can do little things. You can touch a child's hand, make eye contact or acknowledge their emotions in 30 seconds.”