Is it possible to boost patients' empathy for docs?

There are plenty of discussion points in the recent Daily Beast article, "How Being a Doctor Became the Most Miserable Profession," including physician suicide rates and doctors entering high-paying specialty practices to retire as soon as possible.

Even if you don't believe medicine is as horrific as the headline suggests, the article does paint a bleak picture.

But I'd like to focus on the one, slightly hidden, positive.

"It's hard for anyone outside the profession to understand just how rotten the job has become--and what bad news that is for America's healthcare system," wrote blogger Daniela Drake, M.D., a former McKinsey & Company consultant who is now a board certified internist in private practice in Los Angeles. "Perhaps that's why author Malcolm Gladwell recently implied that to fix the healthcare crisis, the public needs to understand what it's like to be a physician. Imagine, for things to get better for patients, they need to empathize with physicians--that's a tall order in our noxious and decidedly un-empathetic times."

Drake has a point. Unless they happen to have a job like mine, which depends on an awareness of the logistical, financial, legal, emotional and ethical challenges physicians face, most patients probably don't feel a lot of compassion for doctors. More accurately, the general population carries an incendiary load of hostility for its doctors.

Nonetheless, most have too much respect for the medical profession, or too little face time with doctors to complain to them--so a healthcare journalist like me often becomes the next-best target for their wrath. Most often, these tirades I listen to everywhere from backyard barbecues to bus stops (busses never run on time when I'm being personally berated for the Affordable Care Act) have nothing to do with actual medical care or other factors even remotely under physicians' control.

People want to rant about unclear terms of their health plans, interrogate me about the best yogurt to eat for their intestinal distress (no matter how clearly I explain I don't write about clinical issues) or, classically, lament that their longtime doctor had the audacity to retire.

What most patients don't realize is that, more often than not, the aspects of the healthcare system that infuriate them are the same ones distressing physicians.

And mainstream media isn't of much help in shaping patient perceptions. A Washington Post version of this week's top story revealing that most specialties saw pay increases of just 2 to 3 percent over the past year, for example, ran with the headline, "Doctors still make good money."

Furthermore, it's not widely understood that the 15-minute office visit takes just as much of a "toll" on physicians as it does on patients.

So it's no surprise that Drake's column concludes dejectedly: "Maybe it's too much to ask for empathy, and maybe physician lives don't matter to most people," she wrote. "But for America's health to be safeguarded, the wellbeing of America's caretakers is going to have to start mattering to someone." 

I think there is a lot of truth to that second statement. As we've urged in the past, the first group of people who need to look out for doctors' well-being are doctors themselves. Next, doctors need to help paint a more balanced picture of the healthcare landscape for patients.

Please, don't interpret this as an invitation to rant and rave about payment reform to a captive audience using public transportation. But you do have channels in which to articulate your position.

Within your written financial policies, for example, it's okay to spell out that, "Our contract with your health plan requires us to collect your copayment at the time of service." Or if you have a blog for your practice, how about a post describing how your patient portal can help expand the physician relationship beyond the limited time available during office appointments? Send the message that you want to better connect with patients, and that your practice employs creative solutions to overcome the challenges outside your control.

These are just a couple of subtle ways you can communicate to patients you are on the same team. To avoid turning people off, though, my advice is focus less on any particular adversary or challenge and highlight the solutions. Tell patients what you do to improve their healthcare and educate them on what they can do to make it even better. And when patients do meet you half way, whether it's by coming to appointments better prepared, taking advantage of self-service tools or just arriving with a smile, be sure to express gratitude for their understanding--and you just might see a little more of it returned. - Deb (@PracticeMgt)