The Mayo Clinic-led study was designed to develop a comprehensive set of ideal physician behaviors. Telephone interviews were conducted in 2001 and 2002 with 192 patients who were seen in 14 medical specialties of the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., and Rochester, N.Y.
Published in a recent issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings, the article was based on transcripts of patients detailing their best and worst experiences with a Mayo Clinic physician.
From the transcripts, study authors identified seven behaviors that describe the ideal physician - confident, empathetic, humane, personal, forthright, respectful and thorough.
Conversely, patients who described a "worst physician" experience focused on traits reflecting opposites of desired physician behaviors, especially perceived insensitive or disrespectful behavior.
The study suggests that training new and practicing physicians about interpersonal skills could have far-reaching effects for patients.
The quality of a patient's relationship with a physician can affect not only a patient's emotional responses, but also behavioral and medical outcomes such as compliance and recovery.
An editorial in the same issue expands on the patient-physician relationship, saying health institutions ought to follow the recommendations of the Institute of Medicine to improve quality by fostering a patient-centeredness approach to medicine.
James Li, M.D., Ph.D., Mayo Clinic Division of Allergic Diseases, writes in an editorial that health care can't meet a standard of quality if the patient-physician interaction is hurried, disrespectful, cold or callous.
Li has been involved with developing programs and curricula for teaching new and practicing physicians at Mayo Clinic about how to strengthen their interactions with patients.
Mayo's structure of focusing on the patient also helps nurture strong relationships between physician and patient, he says.
"A physician who pays personal attention to the patient, who is respectful, compassionate and competent, that's what every patient wants," says Li. "It's really the duty and obligation of the medical community to design a health-care system so that physicians are best able to exhibit those qualities for the good of the patient during the clinical encounter."
The Magnificent Seven
Li notes the seven behavioral traits identified by researchers as ideal for physicians can be taught in various settings, such as having medical residents witness positive interactions that they can model.
Of the seven behavior traits, "thorough" was named most often by patients.
Patients can sense if a physician is rushed or preoccupied, according to the study's authors, just as they can sense a physician's genuine interest.
"If patients have opportunities to tell their stories, to be asked questions and have the physician verbalize understanding of what's been shared, it leaves them feeling like they were heard," explains Li. "This leaves them with the impression that the physician was thorough."
In their interviews about physician behavior, patients rarely commented on a doctor's technical skill.
This doesn't suggest that technical skills are less important than interpersonal ones, the authors say, but rather more difficult for patients to judge.