When Patients Ignore Doctors' Emotions

When people are in need of medical care, recent research says they’re less likely to recognize physicians’ interiority.

Regis Duvignau / Reuters

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.

And in fact, the results showed that the more people needed medical care, the more likely they were to see physicians as not having personal lives or self-focused emotions. They still wanted their doctors to have emotions, though—just emotions focused on them.

“Participants high in need for care perceived physicians to not feel their own emotions as deeply but wanted physicians who feel patients’ emotions deeply,” the study reads.

It’s not quite that patients were objectifying physicians, the researchers clarify, “Objectification implies people always perceive less experiential capacity in physicians,” they write. The patients recognized a person in front of them as capable of caring, they just wanted, or perhaps expected, all of that caring to be directed at them.

And the more instrumental the physician, the less internal life she was perceived to have. In a comparison of different specialties, doctors seen as more instrumental to people’s health (like cardiologists and primary-care doctors) were seen as emptier vessels than those considered less instrumental (like podiatrists and cosmetic surgeons).

It’s not necessarily terrible to see your doctor as instrumental, especially if you really do need them. “When people are in high need of someone, they are more likely to approach the person and express appreciation,” the researchers write. But, “conversely, negative consequences may result when patients overlook physicians’ personal characteristics the patient does not need (e.g., self-focused emotions). For instance, failing to acknowledge others’ mental states has been shown to make people feel objectified or dehumanized… which might contribute to physician burnout.”

And feeling objectified might lead to dislike for the patient, which might lead to worse care for the patient, who did the quasi-objectifying in the first place, because he had a problem and saw the doctor as the solution.