Color & Control:

When Your Doctor Doesn’t Seem to Care

By Cathy Cassata

It’s not just about feelings. When physicians fail to show compassion, it can have a big impact on a person’s mental and physical health. Nothing makes a doctor’s visit more discouraging than an unempathetic physician. But what can you do when your doctor makes you feel like just another number? Whether you’re receiving preventive care or treatment for an acute or chronic condition, receiving compassion from your doctor goes a long way.

“Your relationship with your doctor should be based on mutual respect. You are dealing with high stakes here. This is your health care,” says Anthony J. Orsini, a neonatologist at Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies in Orlando, Florida. “It’s very important for you to understand and feel a bond with your physician so when you leave the hospital or doctor’s office you fully understand what’s going on.”

Orsini, who’s also the president of BBN, an organization dedicated to training health care professionals about compassionate communication, conducted a study in Winnie Palmer Hospital’s NICU unit, one of the largest in the US. The study showed that compassion training for medical staff improves a patient’s hospital experience by 60 per cent.

“This is a significant change,” says Orsini. “In the ‘It’s All in the Delivery’ program that I run, we show nurses and doctors how they can form a trusting relationship with a patient in just a few minutes. I believe doctors and nurses are genuinely compassionate people. Expressing that compassion is where they fall short sometimes, either due to lack of training [in medical school] or because they get caught up in the increasing demands of modern health care.”

The demands Orsini is referring to include increased administrative work. Because nurses and doctors are forced to become more task-oriented to meet these demands, he says it’s easy to forget to take the time to communicate with patients. “You can’t be task-oriented and compassionate. They go against each other,” Orsini says. “The key to breaking the cycle is for physicians and nurses to not allow themselves to be task-oriented and to remind themselves
of the compassion they have within.”

But while Orsini helps health care providers tap into their inner compassion, what can we—as individuals—do if we encounter a lack of empathy from our doctor? It’s important that you feel empowered to make a change—and then act on it. Here’s how…

Say something. Although your particular diagnosis or situation may be routine to your doctor, it’s certainly personal and unique to you. “Be polite, but be your own advocate and share your feelings with your doctor. Tell them that you feel rushed or that you don’t understand what they are saying.” He also suggests asking your doctor to explain your condition in simple terms first, and medical terms after. “We teach nurses and doctors to do this. We also teach them to tell the patient that they will write down the medical term because when today’s patient hears a medical term, their mind immediately tries to spell it so they can go home and Google it,” Orsini says. “And while they’re trying to figure out how to spell a word, they don’t hear what the physician is saying.”

The tone a doctor uses is also something to point out. If, for instance, your doctor tells you that you need to lose weight, the way in which they say it makes all the difference. “Saying it in a particular manner and using words and non-verbal language that show compassion, such as sitting, facial expressions and particular words, can make the difference between the patient feeling insulted or feeling like they have a partner in their health care,” says Orsini.

Ask them to sit down. While many doctors stand up when they talk to patients, Orsini says you should ask yours to sit. “You should really expect their undivided attention. Asking them to sit will slow them down and remind them that this is a one-to-one conversation,” he says. “There are studies that have shown that hospitals can improve the patient experience by simply asking their doctors and nurses to sit down every time they speak with a patient.” He adds that sitting down doesn’t take up more time, yet the patient’s perception is that their doctor stayed longer in the room.

Point out multi-tasking. If you find your doctor talking to you about important information while they multitask, such as sitting at their computer and typing information into your electronic medical record, politely get them to stop.

“You can say, ‘Doctor, I’ll wait until you’re done doing what you’re doing and we can talk one-on-one,’” says Orsini. “Usually when a doctor or nurse has fallen into that task-oriented trap, if a patient reminds them of it, it will usually snap them out of it and the patient will get a good response.”

Find a new doctor. If you’ve tried everything to get your doctor to show compassion and nothing has worked, it’s time to find a new one.

“You deserve a physician that you feel you have a relationship with. If your doctor is not giving you that and you’re unlikely to follow his or her instructions, then move on,” says Orsini.

Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who specializes in stories about health, mental health and human behaviour. This article originally appeared on

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