Doctors who show empathy and acknowledge their patients’ fears and anxieties are more effective than doctors who keep patients at an emotional arm’s length.
This was the finding in a research study published in the British medical journal The Lancet. In the same study, practitioners who attempted to form warm and friendly relationships with their patients, and reassured them that they would soon be better, were more effective than practitioners who kept their consultations impersonal, formal, or uncertain.
After finishing my Internship at Baragwaneth Hospital in South Africa almost 30 years ago, I went to apprentice in a busy General Practice in Johannesburg. At the hospital, I had been treating acutely ill patients with pneumonia, broken bones and heart failure. Now, patients were coming to see me with fatigue, aches and pains and insomnia, and despite my training, I didn’t know what to do.
Like most doctors, my medical education was in crisis care and I simply had not been taught to deal with these types of problems. These patients were not sick enough to be in hospital, but nor were they well, and they automatically assumed a doctor could help. The majority of patients a general practitioner sees are like this. I often refer to them as the “walking wounded” or “worried well.”
At my wits end, I went to Paul Davis, the wise GP I was apprenticing with at the time. Paul smiled knowingly, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Most patients get better in spite of the medicines we give them, your job is to listen to them, be there for them, and support them.”
I watched him closely for the next year and noticed how he always fostered an atmosphere of caring by listening attentively to his patients, perhaps offering a word of encouragement or, when appropriate, a reassuring touch. Patients walked out of his office occasionally with a prescription, but always feeling better and more hopeful, regardless of what they came in for. From Paul I learned the art of medicine, how to pay attention to my patients and how to foster a good doctor/ patient relationship.