Bedside manna

"Some doctors have an intuitive rapport. For others it’s a work in progress."

Keren Levy

A series of health scares recently put me in the way of varied styles of medical communication. After a fainting episode at work necessitated a number of anxiety-inducing tests, I discovered that scary terms such as cardiogram and biopsy can become wondrously gentler things when delivered by way of empathy.   

And in my case, often, they were. Wired with cables, attached to primary-coloured suction tabs, one can be forgiven for feeling like a human game of Twister. But the nurse administering my heart monitor understood the balance between listening and informing. Her simple statement that something was routine and her anecdotes providing context brought normality into the midst of alienating technology. It was welcome. 

Yet a slight ambiguity persists to the term bedside manner.  It can excuse as much as compliment, perhaps because it is still regarded by some as the preserve of polite society.  The possession of a good bedside manner is “incumbent on a fashionable lady’s doctor”, stipulated an article entitled “Modern Requirements”, in the Yorkshire Evening Press in 1891.

In the same era, a Punch cartoon by George du Maurier pictured an urbane male doctor, coffee cup aloft, at the bedside of an indisposed female. “Oh, that’s your doctor, is it? What sort of doctor is he?” reads a visitor’s speech bubble. The patient’s reply: “Oh well, I don’t know much about his ability; but he’s got a very good bedside manner.”

Fast-forward a century and there is a definite shift. Critical diagnostic ability and the manner of its communication are regarded as more of a unit. A 1991 film, The Doctor, loosely based on Dr Edward Rosenbaum’s autobiographical A Taste of My Own Medicine, documents the experience of throat cancer which took him from being surgeon to patient. Being on the “receiving end” transformed his views about conveying information. Evident sympathy became his priority, with the aim that patients feel comfortable, reassured, and welcome.

Some doctors have an intuitive rapport. For others it’s a work in progress. I understand this most where empathy is absent.

“We’d better include an echocardiogram,” said one GP, tartly and without further explanation. “Is there an additional problem shown in my scan?” I asked.

“Well, it’s not normal to faint for no reason, is it? I do have other patients.” Both are true. The trick is not to make you feel it.

Bedside manner isn’t always intended as praise. But it should be.

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