Doctors Should Stop Looking at Their Little Computers and Listen to You

Researchers say active listening and paying attention to emotional cues could be the key to bridging the divide between healthcare providers and the people they treat.
Katie Way
Brooklyn, US
Photo by Wutthichai Luemuang via Getty Images

The doctor-patient relationship has undoubtedly seen better days. One of the biggest culprits, according to experts, is that doctors feel crunched for time thanks to all of the data entry work that goes into maintaining electronic medical records. Although electronic medical records hypothetically save time by allowing physicians access to all of a patient’s data at once, studies have shown they decrease physician productivity, making more frazzled doctors glued to their computer screens, seemingly less interested in the person in front of them than the digitized avatar on the monitor. You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to understand that something has gone very, very wrong here.


The state of things has gotten bad enough that doctors are doing research on other doctors about how to be better doctors when interacting with patients. Researchers from Stanford University interviewed nonmedical professionals whose jobs involve a high degree of human connection (think: teachers, documentarians, firefighters) and compiled recommendations focused on improving a healthcare provider’s “presence.” They recommended that doctors go into appointments aiming to do things like “listen intently and completely,” “connect with the patient’s story,” and “explore emotional cues.”

According to Donna Zulman, the study’s lead author, “Physicians, particularly in the primary care setting, face mounting administrative demands during brief patient visits, and this mismatch of time and expectations is contributing to many physicians feeling overwhelmed and burned out.” Zulman also told VICE the transition to electronic medical records has exacerbated the time issue. “The electronic health record has the potential to support arduous tasks and patient safety, but it generates serious time demands for physicians, and its physical presence in the room can create distractions that interfere with communication and the doctor-patient relationship,” she said.

The guidelines the authors came up with are pretty basic—obviously healthcare providers should actually pay attention to their patients. But feeling unlistened to or disrespected by a healthcare professional can sting more than any other shitty professional interaction. Research has shown that a patient’s trust (or lack thereof) in the physician treating them can have serious consequences when it comes to that treatment’s effectiveness. One review of the clinical impact of the doctor-patient relationship found that a good doctor-patient relationship makes patients more likely to follow prescribed lines of treatment, can aid in a patient’s recovery process, and can even help patients tolerate pain better by giving them a greater sense of control.

This means the attitude and behavior of doctors, insofar as it makes patients distrustful or uncomfortable, is a bona fide public health issue. As technology subsumes more and more aspects of medical care, it is essential that doctors remember how important the human element still is.

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