Overcoming the Dichotomy of Professional Distance

empathyA physician recently reminded us: “Doctors are trained to be impersonal.” In saying this, they were struggling to balance the apparent dichotomy between maintaining professional distance and bringing empathy and engagement to patient-centered care.

A common course for some doctors is to cling to a traditional hierarchy that elevates the physician to a superior role. By one analogy, the doctor is the pilot commanding the aircraft, and the patient is a passenger along for the ride. Emblematic of this the “white coat,” which can be seen as represent authority, being a barrier to candid communications, or wearing a “portable pedestal” of importance.

In today’s healthcare environment—where the patient is increasingly empowered as a customer and a proactive participant in their health decisions—this top-down perspective is changing rapidly across the country and elsewhere. The trend toward greater engagement and improving patient experience—where doctors were trained to be detached—is no longer a useful or appropriate model. Perhaps the better analogy is where the doctor is the pilot and the patient is the co-pilot.

Dr. James Merlino, the Chief Experience Officer and Associate Chief of Staff for the Cleveland Clinic, addressed this concept recently. In our podcast interview, he expressed a fresh, and more useful perspective:

“We [doctors] hide under that umbrella and say ‘we don’t want to get close to our patients because it will cloud our objectivity and our ability to take care of them.’ But the reality is that we are professionals and we should be able to get past that. I think it enhances our ability to take care of them because we’re providing something where we typically fall down, which is the whole humanistic side of medicine and the empathetic side of medicine.

“It is important that clinicians and healthcare professionals recognize that they can develop relationships and not sacrifice their objectivity in how they are delivering medical care. And by the way, patients want that. Studies show that when patients feel and believe that their healthcare providers have a personal connection to them, that the healthcare provider will deliver safer care and better care because they feel they will treat them like they are a family member.”

Navigating this extremely complex environment is especially difficult, and there is no uniform, one-answer-fits-all solution. Although “distance” is sometimes vaguely defined, virtually all providers recognize the essential value of an appropriate professional, not personal, relationship.

Bringing the right measure of empathy and understanding to the doctor-patient relationship departs from traditional training about “distance,” but does not sacrifice professionalism.

For more on this topic and Dr. Merlino’s insightful book, click through to the podcast interview and article: Service Fanatics: Required Reading for Superior Patient Experience.

Lonnie Hirsch

Lonnie Hirsch

About Lonnie Hirsch

Co-Founder of Healthcare Success Strategies, Lonnie has consulted for over 2,000 health care clients during his 20-year career. Lonnie writes for many healthcare publications, and also has spoken at hundreds of venues nationally. His topics include patient experience, customer service, marketing, branding and business development.

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One Response to Overcoming the Dichotomy of Professional Distance

  1. Bruce Allen April 12, 2015 at 9:20 am #

    Your analogy, with the doctor as the pilot and the patient as co-pilot is incomplete. This is only a good analogy if you point out that in addition to co-piloting the plane, the co-pilot owns the airplane and pays the pilot to fly it.

    Attempts to redefine terms of health care delivery relationships must begin with an acknowledgement that it is the recipient that is ultimately in control. Health care deliverers only act with managerial authority granted by the recipient.

    Note that I reject the word “patient”–I dislike words who’s root is “to suffer” and who’s definition objectifies a human being.

    Please keep trying–this is a worthy effort.

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