NHS doctors must be kinder to patients, expert warns

Doctors have been accused of a culture of 'institutional unkindness'. Picture: Getty

Doctors have been accused of a culture of 'institutional unkindness'. Picture: Getty

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DOCTORS must be taught to be kinder to patients, according to a Scots expert who warns of a culture of “institutional unkindness” within the NHS.

Medicine’s competitive culture can mean being kind is seen as “an attribute of losers”, while intense focus targets and technical progress can reduce the patient to an object of curiosity, said Dr David Jeffrey, an honorary lecturer in palliative medicine at the Centre for Population Health Sciences at Edinburgh University.

Kindness is an integral part of what makes us fully human and should be established as one of the doctor’s duties to a patient.

David Jeffrey

Writing in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine today, Dr Jeffrey said kindness must be an integral part of a doctor’s duty to their patient.

He said: “In a management culture which measures success in numbers, league tables and throughput, time spent with the patient addressing their concerns is not valued so is not seen as an essential part of a doctor’s duty.

“Medicine is not a competitive sport yet sadly some doctors take a lifetime to learn this.”

Bullying, harassment and macho culture within hospitals can make it difficult to challenge wider problems between staff, Dr Jeffrey said.

Unkindness to patients can be more subtle, such as medics concentrating on scans and test results rather than engaging with their patients and their concerns. The problem is compounded as stretched doctors are often overworked, anxious and isolated, he added.

Dr Jeffrey, who is currently undertaking a PhD on empathy in medical students, advocates that kindness should be restored into medical care by teaching students to value kindness, tolerance and an open approach to others. 
He said: “Kindness is an integral part of what makes us fully human and should be established as one of the doctor’s duties to a patient.”

Scottish medical and nursing leaders previously issued an unprecedented call for decisive action to tackle problems within the NHS out of concern for patients and doctors.

The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges and Faculties in Scotland and the Royal College of Nursing Scotland spoke out over the challenges facing the health service, such as the ageing population, budget pressures and rising expectations.

Dr Alan McDevitt, deputy chair of BMA Scotland said: “Despite the challenges doctors face in their working lives, at the heart of all their activities is the patient and their welfare.

“We recognise that each patient is an individual and whilst clinical decisions might broadly be the same, each person might require slightly different levels of support. Kindness is something that most will value alongside the 
professional advice they get from their doctor, and empathy and compassion can inevitably have a positive impact on a person’s experience and wellbeing in a medical setting.”

lizzy.buchan@edinburghnews.com