(c) 2011 Sherman Lambert

Might an empathetic bedside manner trump news delivered, softening blows because the patient feels heard?

Visit one, not requested by us but strongly suggested by the medical staff, started off in what is a typical way in our family: they got my daughter’s name wrong. Hey, I realize I named her a unique name, but after sixteen years at a practice, why is it so few of the staff get her name right? Is it possible they have a habit of not reading with attention?

Then the staff member proceeded to ask us why we were there—and then argue with us about our answers. We did not ask to come back so soon, but were told it was necessary for a specific reason—which had not been recorded the same way in the visit notes. Before we left without doing anything medically, three staff members were in the exam area, none willing to agree with the reason we said we were there while turning the conversation to what my daughter was not doing right—through information that had never been discussed at the previous appointment.

First of all they discounted what they had done and then turned the finger of blame on us. We were supposed to feel appeased with platitudes that it wasn’t a waste of time because they got to check out something else. Believe me, it isn’t whether they think something is a waste of time that matters—it’s what we, the patients—customers, if you will—think.

And maybe we would have felt the visit had not wasted our time if they had even offered one sincere apology for the miscommunication. Perhaps they really do think we got it all wrong, but this is not the first time we have encountered such confusion at this practice after we had the apparent misfortune to see two different providers at two visits—either office politics or medical philosophy discrepancies are involved or the staff does not write good notes in the charts—or all of the above.

In fact, with all my years of watching over my mother’s and my kids’ care, I can tell you that this is not an area I get wrong often, if at all. I know when the appointments are and I know why they say we are supposed to be there. The more I deal with medical appointments and procedures, the more I realize that good patient care is about more than the medical aspect—it’s also about good listening and record-keeping.

So I can tell you that my daughter was very unhappy to go to an appointment elsewhere an hour later. Since we haven’t figured out who should be her primary care doctor now that she is nineteen, when she has an urgent general concern when she is at home, she still has to go the pediatric practice where she’s been seen her entire life.

First of all, they called her by her given name. Then the PA asked questions that showed she had read the most recent sections of her medical chart. And, get this, she didn’t question how she said she felt, but discussed it with an empathetic tone. Of course, then she sent me out after a few questions so she could treat my daughter like the adult she is. By the time the appointment had ended, this PA had suggested something that could explain so much about all these constant physical problems that have been so hard on my daughter’s emotional well-being. Not a one of the specialists had ever mentioned such a possibility but so often they didn’t appear to have read her medical history and/or did not listen enough to our explanations to ask such thorough questions.

The daughter who entered that practice ready to shutdown on the next medical person who discounted her experiences left peaceful, despite hearing that there might be an explanation for her health problems that would mean even more medical treatment.

I am convinced she calmed down all because she felt she had encountered a provider who tried to understand all she had experienced, by simply reading good notes and asking related questions to draw out more possible information as well as by listening to the answers.

In other words, she felt heard. And that may make all the difference in getting a good enough diagnosis so that true healing may begin.