“Being a role model is the most powerful form of educating.”
The typical approach to faculty development in education often emphasizes specific teaching skills, such as rounding and teaching styles, providing expectations, and giving feedback. Before these strategies can be applied, however, we must first take note that memorable and influential physicians share common practices of compassionate, person-centered care. Role models are important in professional, character, and career development.1 Role modeling compassionate patient care gains learners’ respect and engagement, and, ideally, inspires them to grow as people and physicians. An often-overlooked foundation of improving as a medical educator is working to improve our bedside interactions and role modeling compassionate care.
As new roles and promotions draw us away from clinical commitments and toward administrative work, it is easy to become disconnected from the value of clinical medicine. We risk unintentionally perpetuating a hidden curriculum that undervalues humanistic care when we do not explicitly endorse empathic values and behaviors. Exemplary teaching physicians respect patients, care for their well-being, and consider the big picture.2 Next time you are rounding, remember the importance of bedside patient interactions.
With that in mind, here are three key strategies to consider for effective physician-patient interactions.
1. Start strong: It is crucial to get off to a good start by leading with respect and kindness. Knocking and pausing before entering the patient’s hospital room shows you remember that they are in vulnerable positions, with little privacy. Smiling warmly when greeting patients shows you are happy to see them. Greet them using their preferred honorific and introduce yourself and your team each day. Ask whether it’s okay to mute the television, but remember to turn the volume back up when leaving. Convey warmth with appropriate touch, consider small acts to make the patient more comfortable, and, when possible, sit at a patient’s eye level.
2. Show empathy: Be patient and remind yourself that hospitalized patients and their families are often in the most difficult times of their lives. In addition to being in vulnerable positions, patients are often lonely and anxious. Humanistic physicians get to know patients as people and beyond their medical illness by talking about nonmedical topics.3 Ask about their family, their pets, memorable moments in their lives, sports teams, favorite shows, and how they pass the time while hospitalized. Are there any photos they would like to share with you? Ask, too, before you leave the room whether they need you to reach something for them. Use humor thoughtfully, and always with kindness. Demonstrate humility about your own abilities, and what you know and do not know about the patient’s diagnoses, and their lived experience.
3. Strive for trustworthiness: Advocate for the patient and show them and your learners that you care. Make shared decisions when straying from guideline-directed care. Aim for trustworthiness; patients’ distrust is an adaptive response to how they have experienced healthcare, so while you do not have to take distrust personally, you should take addressing it as a personal obligation. Be aware of your own privilege, and that how patients perceive you is a reflection of how they have experienced the world, including other clinicians. Model vulnerability, including showing appropriate sadness when there is bad news to report and acknowledging grief.
Being a better clinical teacher starts with being a better doctor. Role modeling compassionate and person-centered care is a cornerstone of being an exceptional clinical teacher.
We gratefully acknowledge SHM’s Physician-in-Training Committee, whose support made this collaboration possible.