The doctor-patient relationship is a crucial, oft-discussed part of health care. One person seeking help, the other with the knowledge to offer it, a beautiful symbiosis. Or so it should be. In reality, this relationship (like all relationships, really) is complicated and messy. Perhaps more so because it takes place in little half-hour bursts, sometimes months apart.
And as in many relationships that are strained, both parties are a little bit at fault. Physicians are sometimes guilty of not listening to patients, or interrupting them (sometimes after as little as 18 seconds) but new research shows that patients often make another classic relationship mistake—seeing the other person as less than a person.
A study done by Juliana Schroeder of the University of California, Berkeley, and Ayelet Fishbach of the University of Chicago surveyed patients on their personal experiences with doctors, as well as having them rate the emotionality and agency of fictional doctors and dentists.
What they found is that patients tend to see their doctors as “empty vessels” who are there to serve the patients’ needs. The fact that doctors are “instrumental”—they provide something that people need and are a means to achieving a goal—seems to overshadow the existence of doctors’ personal lives and emotions. It probably doesn’t help that doctor-patient interactions can be so high-stakes. It’s understandable that someone might be more likely to see another person as a key to turn in the lock of her problem when her problem is life or death.