Leader: Don’t squander valuable patient-doctor bond

Many young doctors believe they should be distant to be professional, according to Dr David Jeffrey. Photograph: Getty
Many young doctors believe they should be distant to be professional, according to Dr David Jeffrey. Photograph: Getty
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There are many frustrating experiences to endure at visiting time in a busy hospital ward. Getting someone to answer the intercom to let you in is usually the first one, an exasperating experience after what might have been a long and stressful journey to see a loved one who is by that stage only yards away. The next is the reluctance of staff to make eye contact with a visitor who is clearly looking for information. But the worst is the long wait to speak to a doctor, who should arrive “soon” to cast light on a worrying condition about which nurses can’t offer guidance.

Overworked staff is the problem behind all these issues. There is no-one on the desk to answer the intercom; nurses fear that their busy day will become even more complicated if they engage with a visitor over an issue that is likely to delay them; and doctors are trying to assess more patients than their hours can reasonably permit.

When a report in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine says doctors are not showing patients enough empathy, we can hardly be surprised. To stand any chance of getting round every bed, or fulfilling every appointment at a GP surgery, doctors are forced to take a functional, or cold, approach. There is no time for proper consideration of how a patient feels about what is happening to them, when the next appointment is already long overdue.

No-one should have to go through what can be the most frightening time of their life, feeling like the one person they can look to for help is elusive or unapproachable.

There is no easy answer to this problem, because to help doctors to do their jobs properly means investing in more doctors in a time of austerity. And the issue of doctors’ long hours, and the pressure they are under, has been with us for some time now.

But if we are serious about addressing this flaw in the NHS, here is another very good reason to take action. The relationship between doctor and patient is key to the success of health provision. The savings we make at this key point are a false economy.