When your doctor's bedside manner is vital

Whether you have a chronic illness or need surgery, here's what to look for

Published: February 15, 2015 11:00 AM

When a friend discovered that he needed heart surgery, he wanted only one quality in his physician: medical skill. He didn’t care whether the doctor was a good communicator, com­pas­sionate, and caring—traits we call “a good bedside manner.” For him, bedside manners take a backseat to clinical abilities.

Many doctors I’ve spoken with feel the same way, especially when it comes to one-time situations such as surgery. You may feel differently. In fact, 59 percent of those polled in a 2014 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation survey of how patients viewed primary-care doctors said a doctor’s personality and the quality of the doctor-patient relationship were most important.

Similarly, a 2013 Vanguard Communications survey found that online complaints about matters such as doctors being dismissive of concerns, late for appointments, hurried, or not listening well were almost four times more common than criticisms about medical abilities.

Of course, the best-case scenario is getting the whole package: a talented physician who listens and communicates well. But there are times when one of those skills trumps the other. So when is it most important to demand good bedside manner and when should you focus more on skill?

When bedside manners are key

Bedside manner is key in your primary-care doc­tor, where an open and long-term relationship is most beneficial to your well-being. It’s important for you to feel comfortable about sharing personal health information and for your primary-care doctor to be a good listener so that he or she can get a good handle on all of the details of your health.

The same holds true if you’re coping with a chronic illness such as asthma or diabetes, which requires care over time. Some research suggests that a strong doctor-patient relationship helps encourage you to take medications as prescribed, get timely screening tests, and take the right lifestyle steps.

Working with a doctor who takes the time to break down complex information is also helpful when you are dealing with a serious condition such as cancer. That kind of illness requires a number of decisions that take your ideas and values into account, and good doctor-patient communication is very important.

When medical skills are key

However, hard-core medical skills should be your primary focus in certain other instances, such as a single event like a surgery to set a broken bone. You’ll have little interaction with the surgeon and no long-term relationship, so you can probably put up with a lack of interpersonal skills as long as he or she is a good clinician.

When a colleague recently had a hip replacement, for example, she chose a surgeon she described as rude and arrogant. But he was highly experienced in the surgery she wanted, and she knew she would only have to deal with him on a short-term basis.

If you’re dealing with a condition that’s rare or hard to diagnose, you may have to choose a doctor based solely on clinical skill. Most doctors are trained to identify and treat the most common diagnoses in their area of specialty. But if your symptoms don’t add up to a clear diagnosis and you’ve already seen a specialist or two, or your disease is rare, it may be time to identify someone who has cared for people in similar situations.

In a medical crisis, it’s great if the emergency department doctor is kind. But bedside manner has to take a backseat to experience and skill in that scenario, especially in the middle of the night or during weekends, when emergency departments are under the most pressure.

However, if the emergency department visit turns into a hospitalization, you want to make sure you will be listened to and respected. A Consumer Reports National Research Center survey of 1,200 people who had recently been hospitalized found that those who felt they rarely received respect from the medical staff were two and a half times as likely to experience a medical error (such as a hospital-acquired infection, wrong diagnosis, or prescription mistake) as those who felt they were treated well.

Consider that in advance of a crisis, so you can decide ahead of time which hospital you’ll go to in an emergency. To find a good hospital in your area, see Consumer Reports’ latest hospital ratings.

Orly Avitzur, M.D.

Medical Adviser
Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the March 2015 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.  

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