Courteous but not curious: how doctors' politeness masks their existential neglect. A qualitative study of video-recorded patient consultations

Journal of Medical Ethics 37 (11):650-654 (2011)
Abstract
Objective To study how doctors care for their patients, both medically and as fellow humans, through observing their conduct in patient–doctor encounters. Design Qualitative study in which 101 videotaped consultations were observed and analysed using a Grounded Theory approach, generating explanatory categories through a hermeneutical analysis of the taped consultations. Setting A 500-bed general teaching hospital in Norway. Participants 71 doctors working in clinical non-psychiatric departments and their patients. Results The doctors were concerned about their patients' health and how their medical knowledge could be of service. This medical focus often over-rode other important aspects of the consultations, especially existential elements. The doctors actively directed the focus away from their patients' existential concerns onto medical facts and rarely addressed the personal aspects of a patient's condition, treating them in a biomechanical manner. At the same time, however, the doctors attended to their patients with courteousness, displaying a polite and friendly attitude and emphasising the relationship between them. Conclusions The study suggests that the main failing of patient–doctor encounters is not a lack of courteous manners, but the moral offence patients experience when existential concerns are ignored. Improving doctors' social and communication skills cannot resolve this moral problem, which appears to be intrinsically bound to modern medical practice. Acknowledging this moral offence would, however, be the first step towards minimising the effects thereof
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