How many movies, television shows, and books have featured a smart-as-hell doctor with a bad “bedside manner”?
It’s practically a point of pride: A doctor who’s savvy, highly intelligent, and the best at what they do has the right to be arrogant, nonchalant, and direct. We know this because we’ve all experienced it in a doctor’s office at some point in time, with varying degrees of success.
On the one hand, we patients want to know that our doctor is in charge. Who has time for pleasantries when we need the absolute truth of our condition? If we polled the public and asked them, ‘what’s more important…a doctor who is kind, or a doctor who is right?’ overwhelmingly folks would choose the latter.
And yet, we live in interesting times, with more transparency than we human beings have ever had before. We can Google our symptoms on WebMD, check Yelp reviews of our neighborhood docs, and fact-check what our doctors are telling us as we sit there live in the room.
The fancy word for this phenomenon is “information symmetry,” which describes the balancing-out of information from one place to another. Whereas before, doctors knew everything and we lowly patients knew nothing, now the level of information has balanced out to a point where, perhaps dangerously, we patients arm ourselves with tons of information about what we’re going through, what the doctor has done in their career, and what prescriptions might serve us best.
Information Is A Double-Edged Sword (And It Might Just Kill Us)
To a doctor, the rise of Google must be frightening. What could be worse than a bunch of untrained folks locked in an incredibly emotional health struggle and armed with an unlimited array of articles, listicles, diagnostic quizzes, and other internet “facts”? Surely it’s a recipe for disaster, and many doctors I’ve spoken to over the years have rolled their eyes in frustration over the fact that their own patients attempt to do the job of a physician (sans decade of training).
Fortunately, doctors have so far been successful at talking most folks off the ledge of their own prescriptive powers. But if we look to the future, a doctor’s power may not always be so absolute or effective.
Take, for instance, the rising voice of nutrition-oriented therapies among the usual American way of Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill. Pharmaceutical influence aside, the almighty Netflix documentary has nearly dethroned drugs in the minds of Millennials and Gen Z (at least the pharmaceutical kind of drugs, anyway). Between our nation’s weight problem and our apparent fondness for completely preventable, chronic disease, the role of doctor as root-cause analyzer and healthcare provider has come under fire as of late.
After all, if doctors truly had our best interests at heart, why be so quick to drugs and surgeries, aside from their obvious profit potentials?
Now, this isn’t a treatise on why to distrust your doctor. In fact, quite the opposite; as one who writes about and speaks about the power of honesty to achieve positive outcomes, I know it’s quite dangerous for uninformed people to assume they are, in fact, informed, and take actions that may end up harming themselves and others. The problem is, as we move into ever-more online information, the role and effect of misinformation will only increase; therefore, a physician’s only option is to fight back.
Tomorrow’s Doctors Must Learn To Communicate If They Want To Fight The Internet
The core challenge here is that doctors haven’t kept up with online marketers. Any blogger, armed with analytics and willing to split-test headlines to increase clicks, will always beat out a qualified doctor’s content.
But today, most doctors don’t even try to get into the proverbial ring. Doctor websites are barely SEO-compliant, often confusing and ill-designed, and rarely, if ever, stocked with authentic point-of-view content from the doctor him- or herself. Instead, the boring websites doctors put forth carry with them the same presumption that we’ve come to regard as medical lore, which is that as a doctor, we don’t need to be good communicators.
“Need” is the operative word, because, accurately, doctors don’t need to communicate in order to be good at what they do. But they DO need to communicate better if they want to rise back to the level of authority and respect that, I would argue, has been lost due to the rise of alternative facts and endless healthcare quizzes that have taken mindshare from the consumer public.
To compete in this arena will require a type of humility for doctors that many will find frustrating—a forced admission that people need to be won back by honesty, transparency, and expertise, packaged into a tidy, web-appropriate bow (and don’t forget to make it mobile-friendly, too). To assume otherwise, to expect that the status quo can continue to make doctors successful pinnacles of our communities, is a form of ignorance and wishful thinking.
Trust me, I wish it were not so. As an Inc. 5000 entrepreneur with an MBA from Columbia University, I struggle to maintain attention against Instagram influencers showing off their rented Ferraris and borrowed mansions. I could rage against this harmful phenomenon that leads otherwise well-meaning folks out there astray (and, honestly, I have). But more importantly, I recognize that we humans are gullible, herd-following lemmings, myself included, and I can either whine about it or jump into the fray to meet people where they are.
If You Want To Maintain Your Medical Expertise, Meet People Where They Are
This is all to say that, if you’re any kind of medical expert these days, you also must become an expert communicator if you wish to remain a respected, visible authority—especially in a digital world.
The faster doctors reckon with that fact, and the sooner they get honest about what it takes to compete as an expert physician these days, the easier they’ll find it to grow a healthy, thriving medical practice, no matter the specialty.
Bad bedside manners won’t cut it in a world with online reviews, instantaneous feedback, social media, and other digital footprints that influence patient behavior. If we have the choice—and thanks to information ubiquity, we do—we’ll always choose doctors who are great at what they do AND great communicators, online, offline, and everywhere in between.
Luckily, it’s not too late to learn…and fortunately, years of schooling and student debt isn’t even required.