When most people hear the word “medicine,” they think of an orange bottle filled with pills waiting for them at the local pharmacy. But medicine can (and should) be much more than pills. Sometimes, the most powerful medicines don’t come in bottles at all. Food is medicine. Movement is medicine. And beyond diet and physical activity, intangible factors like social support, a positive attitude, and practices like meditation or yoga can make a huge difference in health outcomes.
And sometimes, merely having a doctor listen to you can be medicine too…does yours?
Does Your Physician Listen?
One of the most common complaints that I hear in my office is that “my doctor doesn’t listen to me.” It makes me sad to know that so many of my patients are seeing other physicians who don’t make them feel heard. I hear stories like this every day. Empathy and caring are an essential part of a doctors appointment…and it all starts with simply listening.
This is not just some fluffy or soft-headed notion — there’s convincing evidence that having a physician who listens, understands, and empathizes with your concerns will improve your health outcomes.
Unfortunately, this is not just my experience. There’s lots of evidence that a great many patients today are feeling rushed and unheard by their physicians. According to a recent study, published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, only 36 percent of patients surveyed believed that their caregivers correctly understood why they were seeking medical help. Here are several other eye-opening findings from the study that you may find familiar:
- On average, patients were interrupted by their doctors just eleven seconds after they starting explaining the concerns that prompted their visit.
- Most clinicians fail to listen adequately to elicit the patient’s agenda for the appointment.
- Failure to listen can mean that patients are not being evaluated and treated properly.
This is more than a little troubling because, as the study’s author’s point out, “The medical interview is a pillar of medicine. It allows patients and clinicians to build a relationship.”
I wholeheartedly agree. Building a rapport with my patients is one of my most important goals as a physician. I do everything I can to make my patients feel comfortable, relaxed, and safe in my office. I ask them why they came in for the appointment and I try not to interrupt them when they answer.
My job is to help my patients reclaim (or preserve) their health. It’s much easier for me to do that when they are open and honest with me. It’s a relationship that depends on me earning their trust. In my experience, the best way to do this is to listen carefully, demonstrate my concern, and respond to them not just as a physician, but also as a fellow human being.
There’s a name for this approach — it’s called patient-centered care — and it’s supposed to be a guiding principle in traditional medicine. Sadly, there’s been an “erosion of empathy” among many medical practitioners in recent decades. Many observers have noted that conventional medical school training (with its emphasis on clinical objectivity and evidence-based medicine) is actually undermining the emotional skills that physicians need to bond and connect with their patients.
As the authors of the study explain, “The results of the reviewed studies, especially those with longitudinal data, suggest that empathy decline during medical school and residency compromises striving toward professionalism and may threaten health care quality.”
When a physician demonstrates empathy, compassion, care, concern, and reassurance…it’s not just touchy-feely stuff. They are all an essential part of a patient’s treatment plan and can have a real impact on the course and severity of a patient’s illness.
A caring glance, a reassuring smile, and taking the time to listen can all help tip patients in the right direction. This is much more than subjective fluff — the evidence clearly shows that a little listening and some empathy can make a big difference when it comes to patient outcomes. Patients deserve to be heard, and they certainly deserve more than eleven seconds before getting interrupted.
Take good care,