For years it seemed that being well versed in evidence-based medicine was enough for a physician to earn respect and status. Patients would forgive a less-than-perfect bedside manner deferring to the doctor’s wisdom and instruction.
Today’s consumer expects both the soft skills and the hard science in their care delivery. I am thrilled when I see the best of both worlds come together and incredibly irritated when it doesn’t. I witnessed both in the last few weeks as I accompanied my sister through an ER visit, subsequent admission, and follow up appointments. Both the best and worst examples came from the same organization, the same service, and the same department.
For example, the physician who met us in the ER used her name, touched her shoulder and assured my sister that he was very familiar with her case and knew exactly what to do to relieve her pain. His touch, tone, and empathy was as evident as his clinical competence. He took charge of the clinical situation while at the same time offering reassurance and compassion.
I can’t say the same for the physician who did her surgery and follow up appointments. She barely stepped into the room. She was clearly “put out” by being asked to squeeze Elizabeth in for a discharge follow up appointment, which we requested on our own following a 7 day inpatient stay. (Somebody dropped the ball.) She honestly said, “I only allotted 10 minutes for you. Now you’ve made me late.”
So why the huge discrepancy? It could be a number of things starting with the providers’ personal life experiences, innate empathy, and solid communication skills for the top performers and the reverse for low performers. Culture has a lot to do with it, as well. What we tolerate or make excuses for speaks volumes about the culture. And lastly is a personal willingness of the provider to seek feedback as well as a desire to improve, rather than make excuses.
As a lifelong student of the patient experience, I am constantly asking my sister to describe her thoughts and feelings about her various encounters. It should come as no surprise that the first encounter in the ER left her feeling confident and cared for. She could relax knowing that the physician was not only clinically competent, but cared about her. Not the case with the second physician. In that case she was in tears questioning whether or not she had the right doctor, the right clinic, and the right hospital.
Shadow/coaching is a wonderful tool for helping providers to improve their soft skills. It gives them a safe environment to learn from a neutral observer. When a culture truly values the soft skills as much as the hard science they will invest in both to ensure the best patient experience.