What Patients Really Want: Good Bedside Manner

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Bedside Manner and Compassion

This week’s topic is closely connected to what we discussed in last week’s blog. If you missed it, feel free to click here and catch up.

All of the topics touched on last week (trust, honesty, and effective communication) contribute to a successful patient-provider relationship and fall under the umbrella of good bedside manner, but this week we’re honing in on the subject of compassion as it relates to the patient experience.

I often hear friends and family express their desire for a doctor with “good bedside manner.” I’ve even had physicians of mine recommend and/or discourage me from seeing certain other doctors based on their “bedside manner.”

Good bedside manner is clearly a common desire among patients, but what exactly does it mean? I believe when patients say they desire a doctor with good bedside manner, they are essentially saying they desire a compassionate doctor.

According to an article published by The Virtual Care Blog, author Teresa lafolla writes, “But what does good bedside manner really boil down to?…A great provider has rockstar clinical skills and empathy.” (1)

Good bedside manner includes the ability to emotionally connect with a patient, plus the skills to put effective action to those emotions.

Compassion vs. Empathy

There is quite a bit of research out there about practicing empathy within healthcare; however, the subject of treating patients with compassion seems to be a fairly new revelation and growing in awareness. Let’s take a look at the difference.

Merriam Webster defines empathy as, “The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.” (2)

Merriam-Webster defines compassion as, “The sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” (3)

Did you catch the difference? Empathy is an emotion. Compassion is action motivated by emotion.

Emergency physician Dr. Anton Helman wrote an article just last month published by Emergency Medicine Cases. While he deals primarily in emergency medicine, the points he makes on compassion can be applied to all specializations of healthcare. He writes, “A common misconception is that compassion is simply ‘feeling bad’ for the patient. Compassion is more than just empathy. It is an emotional response to another’s pain or suffering that involves a desire to help. It requires a desire to take action to relieve suffering.” (4)

Specifically regarding the difference between the two terms, Merriam-Webster states, “Compassion is the broader word: it refers to both an understanding of another’s pain and the desire to somehow mitigate that pain.” (2)

Here is some more on the difference between empathy and compassion, specifically within the context of the medical field, previously published by MedicalGPS.

Not Mutually Exclusive

Patients desire a physician that is both emotionally moved to help, yet also competent enough to offer sound medical advice.

One is not sufficient without the other. It’s not enough to offer knowledgeable, sound healthcare advice while lacking in emotional connectivity and relatability.

The University of Notre Dame published an article titled, “Fighting for Compassion in Medicine,” in which the author quotes former psychologist Dominic Vachon: “Compassion is your motivation to apply your competence to that patient in front of you. Compassion is what drives you to be as competent as you can be. When you think that compassion is only about being sympathetic and warm and good bedside manner, those are all true, but what the science of compassion really helps reveal to us is that it’s not just your emotions. It’s actually how you manage your emotions, how you’re motivated to respond to the suffering in front of you. And how you can bring to bear all your competence right in front of you.” (5)

Benefits of Practicing Compassion

Practicing compassion is both beneficial for the patient, as well as the provider. In an article published by Patient Engagement Hit, author Sara Heath writes, “Providers who deliver compassionate, patient-centered care tend to see better relationships with their patients, better adherence to treatments, and better outcomes. And even when outcomes suffer due to medical error or factors outside the provider’s control, empathy can go a long way in improving a patient’s perception of care.” (6)

When patients are treated with compassion, they are more likely to trust their physicians. Even fewer necessary physician visits, fewer unnecessary admissions, a decrease in the likelihood of potential litigation, and lower total health care costs are all associated with practicing compassion.

Practice Makes Improvement

Contrary to popular belief, compassion is a learned behavior, not just an innate quality.

While it may come more naturally for some, those who struggle with the character trait can brush up on their skills.

Drawing again from the article by the University of Notre Dame, authors look to Dr. Brian Donley, who compares compassion to a muscle. The article states, “He says the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets.” (5)

The previously mentioned article published by Emergency Medicine Cases also provides a great list of practical ways to improve physician compassion: (4)

1. Regroup.
2. Begin the encounter with an empathetic statement.
3. Use body language that communicates you care.
4. Let the patient tell their story without interruption.
5. Look at the patient and listen to all their concerns.
6. Empower them.
7. Set expectations and explain timeline.
8. Ask if they have any questions.
9. End each encounter with a compassionate statement.


Once again, I’m writing to you from a patient perspective. I am not a physician, nor do I have any experience working in the medical field. However, as I was researching and brainstorming for this blog, I had numerous personal examples come to mind when I either dropped the ball in treating others with compassion or knocked it out of the park.

Being compassionate towards others isn’t exclusive to being a physician or working within the medical field, it’s a requirement of being a good human in general.

I understand life can be stressful, especially today in the midst of a global pandemic and with the upcoming election; but let me encourage you to take a deep breath and treat each person you encounter as you would want to be treated. Isn’t it funny how it really does take us back to kindergarten ethics?

Here’s to treating patients, our spouses, our children, our friends, and others we come across with compassion.

Please let us know if you have comments or questions, and subscribe to our Email Updates, so that you can be assured to receive Thinking Thursdays TIPs.

Thank you!

Jerry L. Stone
MedicalGPS, LLC.


1. https://blog.evisit.com/virtual-care-blog/improve-physician-empathy-in-7-simple-steps
2. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/empathy
3. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/compassion
4. https://emergencymedicinecases.com/physician-compassion-barbara-tatham/
5. https://fightingfor.nd.edu/2020/fighting-for-compassion-in-medicine/
6. https://patientengagementhit.com/news/how-can-clinicians-teach-learn-provider-empathy-compassion

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