Doctors don’t always have good bedside manners, but is it essential? No... and yes

Malay Mail
Malay Mail

COMMENTARY, Dec 31 — The eye-rolling she received from the doctor while she was already in a panicked state horrified Charmaine Boo.

“I had never been treated by a doctor that way ever,” the 30-year-old social media content strategist said.

She had told the doctor about her fainting spell at a whisky event the night before and instead of taking her seriously, he dismissed her concerns by telling her she had probably been drugged or that maybe she had drunk too much.

“I knew it wasn’t either of those because I barely had a glass and I shared that one glass with my friends,” she said.

She had to insist he take her blood pressure and a blood sample just in case, later finding out on her own that it was a vasovagal episode.

(Vasovagal episodes — where you faint because your blood pressure drops suddenly — happen because the body reacts to certain stressors like emotional distress or the sight of blood, etc.)

Then there was the time she had a terrible attack of hives where her entire body was covered with red welts — the first time in her life she had such an experience as she had no history of allergies.

She ended up seeing three different doctors but one consultation stood out because of the doctor’s rush to push her out the door.

“He brushed off my concerns and it was so obvious that he just wanted the consultation to be done and over with,” she said.

Eleda Zaaba, 31, who works as a publicist, panicked about giving birth (her first child) due to her doctor's lack of empathy as she was keen to explore alternative birthing options.

Unfortunately, she soon found that the local healthcare system provided few alternatives for mothers who wish to do so in Malaysia.

“Mothers are expected to just follow anything that is convenient to the doctors. For example, giving birth lying on your back,” she said, explaining that it made more sense to give birth sitting upright as gravity helps to push the baby out, citing one study that supports this.

The doctor she had been seeing near where she lived, however, disagreed with her, saying that the conventional method was the only way in a tone that Eleda felt strongly implied she was a coward.

“I was about to pop and she wasn’t going to deliver my baby gently,” she said, describing her fears.

Eleda and Charmaine are not alone as some research suggests that women are much more likely to be gaslighted over their health due to gender biases.

But AKM, 28, added the same thing happens to fat people to the extent that he has neglected his health because of the dread he feels when he has to go to the doctor’s.

“I’m always wary that whatever the issue is, even when I was at what I’d call my ideal weight, I still have that dread that the issue would be related to my weight and having to lose weight,” the engineer said.

The experience is not limited to healthcare settings. A social engagement once saw a doctor whom he had never before lecturing him for an hour about his weight.

“It takes a lot of convincing and time for me to actually go for a check-up because of the generally horrible experiences I’ve had with doctors,” he shared.

So is there something we can do about these less than empathetic doctors?

“There are avenues to report any dissatisfaction in the delivery of healthcare services. People can make a formal complaint to the Malaysian Medical Council (MMC),” President of the Malaysian Medical Association (MMA) Dr Muruga Raj Rajathurai said, adding that medical training is not only about diagnosis and treatments.

“How to interact and communicate with patients is part of the training in medical school and is also emphasised in the medical profession,” he said.

“Doctors are trained to be neutral when seeing their patients and to listen without being judgemental.”

Dr Mohd Fadzil Man, a 72-year-old psychiatrist, shared his observations about the training doctors undergo, saying: “Back when I was in medical school, we had a lot of bedside supervision from Year Three onwards. I feel a lot of the younger doctors today don’t get enough of that training.”

He said the problem seems especially dire in new private medical schools which are not staffed sufficiently.

“You get a lot of lectures and tutorials, so there are no problems passing exams. But there is not enough staff to supervise them bedside so they don’t have the soft skills,” he explained.

He also said there were other reasons such as the immense stress that comes with the profession, such as stress.

“Doctors, like other human beings, are vulnerable to stress and psychiatric breakdowns. Under stress, sometimes it’s very difficult to be empathetic because you’re caught up with managing life and death situations so it may come across to the patient as the doctor as not having empathy,” he explained.

Besides that, there is also the issue of toxic workplaces where junior doctors may encounter seniors and supervisors who do not care about their struggles with inadequate training and mentoring.

He has seen young doctors break down and give up over this, to the point that they leave the profession.

“I find that doctors under stress are aggravated by their consultants, who themselves lack empathy about what their junior staff are dealing with,” he said.

To him, a good doctor is one who not only provides treatment but one who also helps the patient through the emotional turmoil that illness can bring.

“I don't think anyone can have a successful career in medicine if they lack kindness and compassion. A passion for helping people should be an innate quality in anyone pursuing a career in medicine,” Dr Muruga said.

He agreed that it was not only a matter of academic qualifications and hard work.

“You also have to have the right qualities as a person. A person's values and upbringing are important,” he said.