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Six ways to diminish dehumanization in medical settings

Assistant Professor Adam Waytz identifies the factors that contribute to a bad bedside manner

By Jonathan Muller

3/15/2012 - Everyone at some point has visited a doctor who was less than empathic. A new paper by Assistant Professor of Management & Organizations Adam Waytz and Harvard professor Omar Sultan Haque identifies the psychological factors that contribute to a bad bedside manner, as well as several ways to improve the level of empathy within doctor-patient relationships.

In the study, the authors provide six solutions to improve patient care in hospitals and other medical settings.

  • Individuating practices: Hospital practices minimize the individuality of doctors and patients. This reduces the ability of doctors to identify with their patients. Getting rid of the white coats and scrubs may encourage a greater sense of empathy between the groups.

  • Agency reorientation: In some cases, doctors perceive that patients cannot make their own decisions, and consequently treat them more like pets than people. By empowering patients to have a say in their treatment, or giving them small tasks like taking care of a plant, they can give patients a better sense of self and authority over their health.

  • Promoting similarity: The perceived gap between doctors and patients often reduces the ability of the two to relate. Waytz and Haque suggest promoting similarity by hiring more physicians to match national demographics of patients. Waytz and Haque also recommend that physicians refer to clients as people, not as their disorders (as “the patient with diabetes” rather than “the diabetic”).

  • Personification and humanizing procedures: Referring to patients by their symptoms or particular body parts can make them feel less like people and more like objects. “Avoid speaking about patients in the way that mechanics speak about cars and their broken parts,” say Waytz and Haque. Instead, doctors should use more personifying terms to humanize patient care. Examples include reminding staff of a patient’s hobby or family, and making the patient’s face visible at all times.

  • Empathic balance and physician selection: Treating patients can sap doctors’ capacity to feel empathy for those undergoing painful procedures, according to the authors. By encouraging a balance between cold, cognitive problem-solving skills and warm, social skills during medical training, physicians can be more effective in clinical settings.

  • Moral engagement: Waytz and Haque find that doctors separate morals from work to minimize their guilt when they have to give foul-tasting medicine or administer painful procedures. However, this can go too far and subject the patient to unnecessary discomfort. Morally engaging practices, such as providing more fashionable hospital gowns or including a photograph of the patient in his or her file, can increase humanization.

The study, “Dehumanization in Medicine: Causes, Solutions, and Functions” will be published in an upcoming issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science.

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