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People Leave Hospitals Unhappy Because Doctors Are Mean

Many patients leave the emergency room unhappy because they feel belittled or ignored

Image: Dan Cox

Nearly everybody hates going to the hospital. Even when they leave healthy and healed. Why? (Aside from the fact that going to the hospital means that you did something that landed you in the hospital.) Well, it could be because doctors are often mean to their patients. At least that’s the theory Lucian Leape has come up with. He says that many patients leave the emergency room unhappy because they feel belittled or ignored. And they might feel this way because, well, they are.

Leape published a set of papers about disrespect and its implications for patients. There are all sorts of disrespect outlined in the paper. Pacific Standard describes the range this way:

On one end lies the overtly disruptive behavior: the angry outbursts, swearing, and bullying. More common is humiliating and demeaning treatment (by teachers to medical students, surgeons to nurses, physicians to patients). But there are also behaviors and attitudes that we might not think of as “disrespect”: passive-aggression (harshly criticizing colleagues to psychologically harm them), passive disrespect born of apathy and burnout (“I don’t have to wash my hands”), and dismissive treatment of patients (refusing to return their calls or answer their questions).

Combined, those things make patients feel like cattle, unvalued and ignored. Changing this will require a huge shift in doctors’ attitudes, Leape says. “Doctors have always felt entitled—we teach them that in medical school,” Leape told Pacific Standard. “That’s the challenge. How do you teach them to know a lot and really be outstanding at what they do and not feel that they need to be treated specially?”

One commenter at Pacific Standard agrees:

I agree with Dr. Leape that it is often more a challenge to change the medical system and the culture that has bred a self-fulfilling need to control, not collaborate it even occurs among their own fraternity since the pecking order in medicine is unlike that of other professional groups . As a result the profession has taken a beating in the eyes of the public which is unfortunate because there are so many fine and dedicated physicians doing outstanding work. Elizabeth Rankin BScN

So if you ever feel like your doctor is talking down to you, there’s a good chance you’re right.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Smartphone as Doctor
Doctor Feelgood

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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