Does it matter whether your doctor seems to really care about your well-being? In fact, yes, it does.
A 2011 University of Wisconsin study showed that patients with the common cold who gave their clinicians perfect marks for empathy recovered faster and had less-severe symptoms than those who didn’t.
Dr. Danielle Ofri has taken a close look at emotions in medicine in her work at New York’s Bellevue Hospital, her occasional contributions in the New York Times, and her latest book, What Doctors Feel.
So how can you tell if your doctor really cares, and virtue, give you the best treatment? Dr. Ofri offers some insight.
Look for a doctor who cares, not just looks for a cure.
A doctor's desire to help or cure an illness isn't exactly the same thing as as being an empathetic caretaker, Ofri says. Can a physician or nurse really feel how the patient is suffering? Ofri says most doctors and nurses are capable of putting themselves in their patients' shoes - but sometimes they just don't.
"There's no reason to settle for a doctor who's an excellent technician but has poor communication or relating skills," she says. "There are enough doctors out there who have both that we shouldn't settle for someone with a bedside manner that rivals a roll of surgical tape."
Additionally, doctors in certain fields often demonstrate more empathy for their patients, Ofri says. Medical students who go into primary care fields, like pediatrics or obstetrics, score higher in empathy.
Your doctors doesn't have to be like you in order to care.
Ofri says her time working at Bellevue Hospital put her in contact with patients from every background. Many were poor or homeless, some were undocumented immigrants. She often wondered how the starched, white-haired doctors training her could relate to them.
"I couldn't imagine how this alcoholic, undocumented Honduran immigrant would relate to this grey-haired white guy with a bow tie, yet these doctors were very patient," she says. "They very much wanted to know what was going on with the patient."
That interest was in itself a form of empathy and respect, Ofri says. The patients felt these doctors cared about them - even if they didn't share the same characteristics.
An empathetic doctor teaches her medical students to care.
Ofri says medical schools explicitly teach compassion, empathy and professionalism. But when students see how medicine is actually practiced, they are learning a "hidden curriculum," which reflects how their teachers - other doctors - act toward patients.
Ofri says she's rarely encountered medical students who don't have what it takes to be a "good and empathic doctor." But she says research shows that by the time medical students finish their training, "their empathy is at the minimum sorely tested, if not really eroded, so something about our training is affecting that."
Ofri says the real medical role models are ones who take the time to listen and genuinely care about their patients, rather than brusque and short-tempered doctors. It will be easy to spot the ones who have been taught to show they care, she says.
Don't be dismayed by a doctor with a (somewhat inappropriate) sense of humor.
Humor is everywhere in medicine, Ofri says. Although in some contexts it can be off-putting, Ofri says doctors often use humor to handle the stresses and sadness that often comes with the job.
"Humor is a way to handle situations that are very difficult," she says. "As an attending now, as a senior doctor, I try to be very careful when I hear my team joking. The humor is a signal for something big, something uncomfortable, we're in that, and we need to see what that is."
A doctor who doesn't deal with their own feelings might not be able to empathize.
Many doctors compartmentalize, Ofri says, but their work is affected by not attending to those emotions. Their attempts to seal off parts of their lives from their work usually fails.
"Grief would follow them like a shadow," she says, of oncologists who were studied. "It would affect how they saw the next patient, and...it was a very real part of their life, and they had to negotiate an armistice with their grief, they had to face it."
Patients often can intuitively tell if things aren't going well with their doctors. Ofri isn't necessarily encouraging doctors to share all their emotions with doctors, but being able to show they are human and dealing with their feelings will help them be more empathetic toward their patients.
And according to the aforementioned research, that means patients will get better care.
Dr. Danielle Ofri is an associate professor of medicine at New York University, practices at Bellevue Hospital in New York, and is an occasional contributor to the Well blog for the New York Times. She was in Milwaukee to give the Medical Humanities lecture at the Medical College of Wisconsin.