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a female doctor explains a diagnosis to an older man

How Important is a Good Bedside Manner?

We talk about bedside manner because it’s important to us as patients and to those around us. We want a pretty special combination of empathy, knowledge, experience, practical skills and dare I say it humour. Yes, I’ve spelled it with an additional u because I’m in England. Our system isn’t quite like any other countries’, but I think our medical professionals are pretty similar.

A test of empathy

One day nine years ago I met the Professor of Surgery at Oxford University. He’s a urologist, unsurprisingly. He’s probably very knowledgeable and experienced. I didn’t test his practical skills but his empathy — to use your expression, it sucked.

It was a hot day. The meeting room was a strange shape, despite being in a new building. It was actually shaped like a railway carriage, except I don’t think there were enough seats for the limited number of passengers on the 15.31 to nowhere but my anguish. There was the Prof, me and my wife, and a clinical nurse specialist. That’s a good number, but in addition, there were at least two more people — a radiologist, despite the fact that in a few minutes I’d be told I really shouldn’t choose radiotherapy, and another person. I still don’t know why he was there.

How not to tell someone they have cancer

So already I’d been failed on the empathy front. I guess there isn’t a meeting with patients with a potentially deadly diagnosis module at medical school, but if there ever is one, here’s one simple bit of advice — you probably don’t need more than four in the room plus the patient. They can barely keep track of one medical conversation, let alone five, so don’t fill the room, even if there are enough chairs.

Remember, this is the man who is about to tell me he’s going to take a sharp knife to my sex life (I was 50). To take out the cancerous organ he’s going to cut off the nerves that give me an erection. He’s not a dermatologist about to remove something nasty that might leave a visible scar — he’s going to take away a good deal of what makes me a man.

He failed spectacularly. I walked back into what should have been glorious sunshine wanting to hide in the darkest room possible.

Taking my health into my own hands

Instead, I went home and diligently researched the web to find the best man for the job. There wasn’t a huge amount of data out there then as prostate cancer had a very low profile, and as we know, men don’t talk about their health at all. But after about a day of work, I found the man for whom I’d been searching.

This time I saw him alone, well nearly. I didn’t take my wife — instead, I took a very old and reliable friend. He’s a psychologist, a trainer of senior executives and a stand-up comedian. The surgeon was at least as knowledgeable as the professor, his practical skills were tested slightly while he took a feel of my prostate. He was actually more experienced than the professor where I needed him as he’d done 300 robotic prostatectomies to the professor’s five. He certainly has a sense of humor (we’ve got to know each other well) but his empathy scored a solid ten out of ten.

Always advocate for yourself

So a bedside manner is really important. I’ll tell you what else matters though — persistence. Because healthcare is free here in the UK most people settle for the first person they see because they don’t think they have a choice. Just because you’ve got cancer doesn’t mean you can’t be your own advocate. Find the best person for your needs. With luck, you’ll still be thanking yourself nearly ten years on like I am.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • TomC.
    2 months ago

    My Urologist isn’t much of a communicator, over the years we met once annually for a psa and digital exam, about 10 minutes total. When my psa started going up, he did a biopsy then sent me to the surgeon to have my prostate removed. I never expected a hug or extended exchange with him, just competence which he had. Now I’m back with him as we watch and wait to see what happens next. Again, our meetings are brief and direct, which I appreciate. I guess I look to others for emotional support.

  • JoBu
    2 months ago

    Excellent post and excellent message. I believe bedside manner is absolutely important. Doctors do better the more information they have, so it is important to feel comfortable talking with them. Being diagnosed with prostate options today means you have a lot of treatment options, including non-treatment (active surveillance). Those decisions were very difficult for me, but would have been much harder if I didn’t have frank and comfortable discussions with my doctor and his team about my lifestyle goals and treatment fears. Advocate for yourself, and if your doctor isn’t comfortable taking the time to answer your questions, find one that is.

  • Will Jones moderator
    2 months ago

    Thanks for your story, Simon. I was fortunate to have a doctor, recommended by other men who had seen him for prostate cancer, who guided me with sensitivity and humor. But I completely agree with you: self advocacy is important in all medical matters. I find that slowing doctors down by having prepared questions is a valuable strategy. It seem like they’re always on the run. I don’t want to walk out of the office feeling as if I didn’t get some important information.

  • Dennis Golden moderator
    2 months ago

    Great story Simon and it reminded me of a similar incident involving a head nurse I encountered following the robotic removal of my prostate.

    I had been in surgery for 5 hours and returned to my room at almost 10 PM. The surgery had been scheduled for 11 AM but for what ever reason the wait for entry into the surgical suite took forever.

    As I am laying in bed with drains an IV and catheter the head nurse comes by and says Hi. She quickly checks the drain on my side along with the amount of urine in the catheter bag. She notes it is half full and tell me someone will be back to empty it shortly

    I am still rather groggy but awake enough to hear her go into the hallway and say to someone ” that patient …the guy… in room 302 will need his urine bag emptied when you have some time.

    Another hour and a half passes and no one has ventured near the room much less come in. At this point the bag appears to be filling up

    I buzz the nurse station and politely note the state of affairs. I once again hear “that patient in 302 l will need a bag drained” Once again no one responds for another hour.

    At some point the nurse appears and is apparently upset that she was the one who had to empty the bag. Once the task was completed around 3 AM I called her over to my bedside and said the following ” Just that you know I am not that patient in room 302. I am a husband, a father and grandfather with a name. More important I am a human with real feeling. It would be nice if I was seen as a person and not referred to as an anonymous set of numbers.

    Things did improve after that. I was addressed by name and the level of care was vastly improved more. I made it a point thank the head nurse when leaving the hospital the next day.

    I so agree — you have to be your own advocate when it comes to health care … Dennis( Moderator

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