Can being kind improve the delivery of medical assistance? I think it may well have an impact on the numbers of medical negligence claims brought against the NHS.

Helen Salisbury (GP) wrote a thought provoking article in the most recent issue of the British Medical Journal (12 November 2019) as she considered the impact of showing kindness to patients in her role as a GP. Dr Salisbury encourages GPs to smile, listen and be empathetic and rightly identifies two advantages to taking such an approach:

  1. patients are more likely to leave feeling better and that they have been taken seriously and their concerns have been explored and understood; and
  2. it may also benefit GPs – because projecting feelings of happiness / kindness can influence one’s own feeling of happiness.

On a personal level, I agree. If I am met with kindness when I visit my GP, I believe that I would be more likely to come away confident that my GP is competent and happy with their opinion and suggestion.

Dr Salisbury refers to her experience of teaching students about the benefits of expressing empathy and the fact that GPs need ingrained habits of consulting so that, no matter what our internal weather, patients experience a caring doctor. I agree. But I also believe that these principles can equally apply to handling the times when things go wrong. Whilst a patient’s sudden ill health is most often not due to a mistake (and even then, not all mistakes amount to negligence), showing “kindness” and empathy in such situations may well leave the patient feeling better: something which is surely the base aim for all medical practices.

In the years 2016/17 and 2017/18, just over 10,000 clinical negligence claims are brought against the NHS per year. As someone sadly versed in hearing of patient misfortune, it is a terribly common theme that people feel that they or their family have been dismissed with little or no sympathy or remorse. There are a number of reasons for this but it is a rare occasion to find a patient who feels that an investigation has been conducted with “kindness” or empathy in mind.

However, it should not be left to individuals to identify and execute this. As Dr Salisbury rightly points out, delivering good patient care cannot rely on a professional having a naturally cheerful and empathetic disposition (or rely on the fact that they aren’t having an “off day”). There should be ingrained habits to help deal appropriately with mistakes when they arise, that should aim to minimise a patient’s suffering (or feelings of). Such an approach is likely to be best delivered from an organisational level: something which may also help provide a sense of support for medical professionals on the ground, dealing with mistakes. Clearly, conduct of investigations into serious incidents would also greatly benefit from taking such an approach (see previous comments on the negative impact of organisational and individual fear here and here).

Plainly, an empathetic approach and an apology is not always going to be sufficient for a potential claimant. However, I would wager that patients are more likely to feel better, that they have been taken seriously and that their concerns have been explored and understood. It may even bring about more organisational happiness.