When it comes to bedside
manner, the eyes have it. That's the message of a new study that suggests
patients like doctors who make eye contact and think they're more empathetic.
"The goal is to one
day engineer systems and technologies that encourage the right amount of physician
eye contact and other non-verbal social communication," study co-author
Enid Montague, an assistant professor in medicine, general internal medicine
and geriatrics at North-western University Feinberg School of Medicine, said in
a university news release.
"As we collect more
data we can build models that tell us exactly how much eye contact is needed to
help patients trust and connect with a doctor, and design tools and technology
that help doctors stay connected to patients," added Montague, who is also
an assistant professor in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied
Importance of touch
The researchers came to
their conclusions after studying videos of 110 first-time visits between primary
care physicians and patients who had cold symptoms. The visits were brief, at
an average of 3 minutes and 38 seconds each, and featured the use of paper
charts at a time when many physicians are moving to computer systems.
"Previous studies have
found that nonverbal communication is important based on patient feedback, but
this is one of the few that have looked at these things more broadly
quantitatively," Montague said. "We rigorously looked at what was
happening at every point in time, so we validated a lot of the qualitative
Patients filled out
questionnaires after the visits. They thought doctors were more empathetic when
the visits were longer and when the physicians touched them a few times, such
as through a handshake or pat on the back. But patients seemed to be turned off
by more than three touches, perhaps because they came across as fake.
"Simple things such as
eye contact can have a big impact on our health care system as a whole,"
Montague said. "If patients feel like their doctors aren't being
empathetic, then we are more likely to see patients who aren't returning to
care, who aren't adhering to medical advice, who aren't seeking care, who
aren't staying with the same providers. If they switch providers, that's very
costly for the health care system."
The study recently appeared
in the Journal of Participatory Medicine.
For tips about how to talk with your doctor, try the US National Library of