Lizzy Buchan: Doctor kindness costs nothing and saves lives

Doctors should always try to be kind to their patients. Picture: PA

Doctors should always try to be kind to their patients. Picture: PA

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Being kind to your patients should not be a tall order. When someone is waiting in their GP surgery for a test result or lying on a hospital bed ahead of an operation, they are undoubtedly scared and vulnerable.

A kind word or a gentle joke might be what gives them the strength to endure what is coming.

No patient should not have to settle for less than that.

You certainly would not expect kindness to be a quality lacking among doctors, as individuals who have devoted their lives to helping others.

Yet unkindness appears to have crept silently into the NHS, infecting patients and doctors alike.

Dr David Jeffrey, an honorary lecturer in palliative medicine at Edinburgh University, explored the issue of “institutional unkindness” in a fascinating essay this week, where he called for kindness to be treated as an integral part of the doctor’s duty. Dr Jeffrey sees it as a cultural problem within the NHS, as medicine’s competitive nature means being kind can be seen as “an attribute of losers”.

Importance is placed on clinical skill, technical progress and targets, which leaves the patient as a faceless mass of organs, bones and muscles, who is worth less than the numbers they generate.

Politicians, NHS bosses, and probably journalists, are chasing these figures so they can see how the service as a whole is performing.

So should we lay all the blame on the doctors?

Their workloads are ever-increasing, their numbers diminishing, and the pressure heaped upon them must seem intolerable at times.

Many have told me these issues mean they are not able to build a rapport with a patient or find the time to follow their case.

Continuity of care is lost and so is the bond with the patient.

Medics could be guilty of distancing themselves by focusing on charts or appearing busy, but maybe it is a coping mechanism to bear the weight of all the pain, stress and death they see every day.

The other side of the coin is a pervasive culture of unkindness between staff, although it seems to me that it is all part of the same problem.

There is an old cliche that claims nurses “eat their young”, which refers to hazing or bullying that can occur between older nurses and their more inexperienced colleagues.

It is not a new issue or one limited to the NHS but perpetrators should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.

A macho culture that encourages cruelty between medics will only serve to hurt patients too, as young doctors might be too afraid to ask for help or so upset they make dangerous errors.

It is important to acknowledge that the vast majority of NHS staff are extraordinary people doing impossible jobs.

But no-one is above scrutiny, no matter how many lives they are saving.

While writing the piece, someone asked me why I should care if someone was rude to me if they also saved my life. Of course the technical skill is valuable, but it is not clear why the two should be mutually exclusive.

People are more than a sum of their parts – both doctors and patients.

A little more empathy and compassion from everyone can only be a good thing.

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