I've got a good doctor, and one of the reasons I like him as much as I do is his "bedside manner"—the shorthand we all use for describing whether or not medical professionals are able to connect with their patients emotionally. But pulling off a good bedside manner isn't just about being kind and empathetic, it's also about time. Part of why I think he had good bedside manner is that he spends time talking to me when I go in for an appointment. He answers questions. He asks about my life. He takes the time to empathize, even if, sometimes, that means that a problem that could have been dealt with in 5 minutes became a 20 minute appointment.
It's hard to make people feel valued and cared about if you've only got a couple of minutes to see them before you have to move on to the next person. Unfortunately, packing as many patients into a day as possible is more efficient in a business sense. A 2005 study of 11 doctors found that they spent an average of 13.3 minutes on each patient—if you combined both face-to-face time and time spent working directly on the patient's case outside the exam room. The next year, anesthesiologist Peter Salgo wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about the pressure put on doctors by hospital administration to see as many patients as possible and move them on through with conveyer-like efficiency.
Now there's a new study that suggests the pressure to behave in a business-friendly way makes doctors more likely to have a brusque bedside manner.
What is behind the chronic compassion deficits of some doctors, managers, police officers, school counselors, and other "bad news bears?" Why do they express so little appropriate emotion and invoke such costly wrath? Andrew Molinsky, a professor of organizational behavior at Brandeis University, set out with researchers at Wharton and Harvard business schools to answer such questions. They found a wealth of scholarly research indicating that, in general, people feel and behave less generously when reminded of the pressures of the business world.
the researchers suggest that exposure to business world terms activates a profit-and-loss morality that unconsciously deadens a person’s emotional responsiveness and diminishes that person’s ability to conduct sensitive conversations.
The study itself is behind a paywall, but you can see the summary online: "The Bedside Manner of Homo Economicus"
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.