Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Psychology of Patient Care: Why Bedside Manner Matters

Research reveals how doctors can treat both mind and body.

Key points

  • Physician-patient interactions are important components of the hospital experience.
  • Patients who perceive that their doctor has a good bedside manner are more likely to view their treatment as effective.
  • Doctor distraction during initial encounters may detract from perceptions of safety.
Image by latoyabent from Pixabay
Source: Image by latoyabent from Pixabay

From the emergency room to the operating room, medical professionals and their patients have long appreciated the importance and value of bedside manner. Because patients are by definition in a vulnerable position when they meet with their doctor, mannerisms matter. Although not overly time-consuming, researchers recognize that physician-patient interactions are important components of the hospital experience.[i] Interestingly, the value of such interaction begins the moment the introduction is made.

Sparking Care Through Chemistry

Most of us form impressions immediately when we meet new people—for better or for worse. This can be particularly true in a medical setting, where patients are uncomfortable and anxious for information. Researchers have explored how good bedside manner impacts patient comfort, communication, and compliance with treatment.

Sophia Parnas and Sophie Isobel examined the neurobiology of bedside manner within the field of psychiatry in a piece entitled “Navigating the Social Synapse.”[ii] They describe a social synapse as a framework to comprehend the significance and impact of information, both verbal and non-verbal, transmitted between two individuals who are “attuned.” They explain that both cortical and subcortical networks process social information as well as the perception of safety. They conclude that appropriate bedside manner is an important component of health care, described as a clinician’s ability “to navigate the social synapse and make a patient feel at ease.”

In terms of the benefit, Parnas and Isobel explain that patients who perceive that their doctor has a good bedside manner are more likely to view their treatment as effective, more likely to be treatment compliant, and more likely to experience a reduction in symptoms and improved recovery.

Seeing Patients as Persons

Patients can tell you exactly what bedside manner means to them, in terms of specific behaviors. Parnas and Isobel explain that eye contact is critical, because gaze aversion may be perceived as disinterest, disengagement, or dislike, and can foster distrust. Consequently, they caution against doctor distraction, pointing out that note-taking or working on a computer during initial encounters may detract from perceptions of safety due to averted gaze. They also note that when a clinician feels rushed or stressed, their patients may hear it in their voice, which can detract from effective interpersonal connection.

Parnas and Isobel conclude that effective bedside manner can create a safe environment within which clinicians communicate interest and support, and signal both empathy and care. They explain that patient interpretation and response to these signals impact how they react to their care, and engage in treatment.

Apparently, especially in the medical profession, bedside manners matter. Proactive patient care requires intentional communication and active listening. Whether bearing good or bad news, cultivating chemistry and credibility impacts patient reaction, response, and recovery.


[i] Fletcher, Kathlyn E., Scott L. Furney, and David T. Stern. 2007. “Patients Speak: What’s Really Important about Bedside Interactions with Physician Teams.” Teaching and Learning in Medicine 19 (2): 120–27. doi:10.1080/10401330701332193.

[ii] Parnas, Sophia, and Sophie Isobel. 2018. “Navigating the Social Synapse: The Neurobiology of Bedside Manner.” Australasian Psychiatry 26 (1): 70–72. doi:10.1177/1039856217726224.

More from Wendy L. Patrick, J.D., Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today