Empathetic Doctors Seem More Competent: Survey


Bedside manner is a crucial component of medical professional training, but can often be lost along the way. Doctors can become jaded after years of service, unknowing that their manner can be perceived as brusque and uncaring.

However, a kind and compassionate bedside manner shows more to a patient than just empathy. According to a survey, doctors who showed empathy and warmth were perceived as more competent by their patients.

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Previous research actually showed the opposite: that while nurses were rated much higher when it came to warmth and friendliness, doctors were also rated much higher when it came to competence. Therefore, it was assumed that were was a “warmth/competence trade-off,” and stereotypes were created based on this. The latest survey was based on these stereotypes, but the results show a different story.

The results, published in Scientific America, showed that when a physician shows empathy or warmth to the patient, this behavior is more often associated with “positive health outcomes, increased diagnostic accuracy and more patient adherence to treatment.” In addition, physician empathy is also associated with patient satisfaction.

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Over 1,300 people participated in the online survey and were asked to imagine themselves in a patient-doctor scenario. Sample dialogue between a patient and their physician was paired with photographs of doctors showcasing both empathic and non-empathic body language. For example, the “empathic” photographs showed doctors at eye-level with their patients, maintaining eye contact, and having a concerned expression on their face.

In the “unempathic” photographs, the doctors were shown looking away, creating a physical barrier, and maintaining a closed posture. The participants only saw one set of photographs paired with the dialogue, and were asked to judge the doctor’s warmth and competence.

The results of the survey showed that doctors who were perceived as warm and empathetic were also perceived as more competent. This goes to show that a good bedside manner is more than just an extra thought; it can be a vital component in a patient’s perception of their physician.

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As the authors wrote, “No longer are they judged solely on their technical competence—that is, their ability to perform medical procedures. Rather they may increasingly be judged on their interpersonal competence—that is, their ability to navigate the difficult social interactions inherent in managing patients’ illness and wellness.”

However, the study cannot provide a final word, as the situations were all hypothetical, and the participants were not actual patients. In a hospital setting, the results may vary. Nonetheless, as “soft skills and hard knowledge may go hand in hand,” the researchers urge that teaching proper bedside manner be more in the forefront of a medical student’s education.