Can You Be a Good Doctor and Have a Good Bedside Manner?

I was talking with a friend the other day and in our conversation the idea came out that if a doctor has a good bedside manner, he or she is probably not a very good doctor. Which if that’s true the second thought I had was that I would be a very bad doctor, based on the fact that I love people and want them to feel that love in whatever I do.

Made me pause. My whole career is bent on trying to get caretakers to ultimately have a good bedside manner. We coach caregivers on how to be kind, respectful, and good communicators with each other and with their patients, all while still being a “good” doctor or nurse in the sense of critical, detail oriented thinking as well as the ability to make crucial decisions–sometimes very quickly–that lead to good clinical outcomes. It seems, at least to my friend, that these two skills cannot be combined.

Can they?

Is it possible for caretakers to stay connected to the humanness of everything they touch, while at the same time operate in the realms of their brains need to analyze, segregate into patterns, and make critical decisions?

In his memoir, “When Breath Becomes Air”, Paul Kalanithi writes about the transformation he goes through when first dissecting a cadaver. At first he is connected to the cadaver’s humanness, but then,  gradually–but quicker than he anticipated–he disconnects and the cadaver  becomes simply matter: muscle, organs, tissues.

When Breath Becomes Air

Photo Credit:

He writes, “It was not a simple evil, however. All of medicine, not just cadaver dissection, trespasses into sacred spheres. Doctors invade the body in every way imaginable. They see people at their most vulnerable, their most sacred, their most private. They escort them into the world, and then back out. Seeing the body as matter and mechanism is the flip side to easing the most profound human suffering.”

It’s  this paradox, the matter and the soul, that all caregivers operate in.  It’s the constant sway of their pendulum: effortlessly being able to highly function and make crucial decisions about the “matter” in front of them, while at the same time being able to turn right around and engage emotionally with a distraught and terrified patient or family member.

Some operate on this pendulum better than others, and there are many more factors that play into its complexities than the simple few I’ve presented here. But the fact remains: excellent caregivers possess a wide range of both relational, intellectual, and critical thinking skills and are able to go back and forth and overlap them like a fine orchestra, making seamless music to the patient, who is both matter and soul.

What about you? Have you experienced a doctor who navigated the paradox of matter and humaness well? Tell me about it in a comment below!




  1. Having been in healthcare for over 35 years, I absolutely believe Physicians can be both great at the quality of care and also be a great communicator with their patients. I seek out these physicians for my own care, as I want that level of care and service. I want to know my physicians not only care about my physical health and also care about me as a person. so When a Physician recommends a plan of care for me I look for the conversation to include all the possible options and then together making the decision about what the best course of action is for me. I believe we can all learn to be better listeners, better communicators, especially when we are speaking to patients about their healthcare options. When we understand that many patients and families when they are seeking care , are anxious, scared and don’t always understand medical terminology. Learning to explain things to patients in a way they can fully understand their diagnosis and treatment options is the best way to have patients adhere to the best plan for them. Physicians and all healthcare professionals can learn what small changes in our behaviors make a big difference to our patients, such as sitting when we speak to them and taking the time to listen to their concerns before talking about the treatment plan. Validating that they fully understand all the treatment options and then helping them navigate our healthcare system to get the best care, services and outcomes possible for them. Thank you Danae for posting such an interesting question! I look forward to others comments.


    1. Thank you for commenting Lorna! I think talking about patients as partners is the next step to encourage this important dialogue about involving patients in their care and effective communication between the careteam and the patient. What a journey we are on!


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