Social skills vs technical skills – a marketing exercise for medical practitioners

Over the years, our family has had varying degrees of satisfactory experience with doctors, dentists, physical therapists, and veterinarians  who have repaired or attempted to repair things that went wrong with our bodies or our pet’s bodies.

The doctors, vets, and so forth that we remember most fondly are the ones who had superior social skills, even when they turned out to be less than correct in determining and fixing what was wrong. This group treated us as individuals and stayed in full communication with us even when they could not fix something.

The doctors whose technical skills towered over their social skills often pulled off medical miracles but are remembered with annoyance, even distaste. This group fixed what was wrong and treated us as objects. We were remembered as the "knee replacement" or the "oral surgery" with UnitedHealthcare medical insurance.

This goes to extreme lengths in some medical practices where the doctor asks you a question with a recorder in his hand. You describe what you are experiencing and the doctor says to the recorder, "Patient is unable to localize the pain but thinks she is doing better."

My response would have been to take the recorder and dictate, "Doctor unable to confront patients. Needs to overcome fear through appropriate training or therapy."

What many doctors don’t realize is that their practice is under
constant scrutiny and open discussion on the internet. In the past,
patients compared notes, but there was no record of what they decided.
Today, if you want to find out what patients think about "Dr Y" you can
Google "Dr Y" and get instant feedback on his success rate.

I think that this trend will progress further and that online
commenters will soon rate medical practitioners on both their skill and
their patient handling, with examples to support the comments.

Practitioners generally have a mix of technical and social skills
and they should consider reviewing their social skills and patient
handling as these can be improved with a little care and attention.

I have recently discovered a dentist in a nearby city who does
superlative work, but I hesitate to recommend him without stating
clearly that his patient handling needs work.

He is so good that he has been able to correct matters that two
previous dentists and dental specialists could not touch. He has
evidently been trained to an exceptional degree of skill. On the other
hand, he has never been trained in communication skills and this
significantly affects the word of mouth advertising that he gets.

He is totally focused on getting me into the chair and getting the
work done perfectly. There is an absolute minimum of small talk with me
as a patient, but when the work is done, he will briefly consult with
me on whether I am satisfied.

On the other hand, he and his assistant will chat about a ball game
or other non-dental practice item while he is working on my mouth. This
is unnecessary and distracting to me as a patient. If he is being paid
to work on my teeth, I want his attention where it belongs.

I have gently suggested that he is an excellent dentist, even if he
lacks a warm and friendly "chair side manner". He was not sure how to
take that, but I didn’t have time to coach him in the economic aspects
of good communication skills.

On the positive side, he seems willing to learn from patient
suggestions and I am sure that he will acquire the same proficiency in
communicating with patients as he already has in fixing and beautifying

I will continue using him as my dentist and recommending him to
others, but I will qualify my recommendation so that people will know
what to expect. Absolutely top rank work, but don’t expect a warm fuzzy
feeling from your visit.

It could easily be quite different. He is young and personable and
could create a great patient experience with a little work on his part.
I hope he takes the time to do that. It might make his practice more
enjoyable for him and his patients.

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0 Responses to Social skills vs technical skills – a marketing exercise for medical practitioners

  1. Jane Chin says:

    Right on, David! I recently wrote an op/ed about “Why we like the doctors we like”. It’s amazing how often doctors treat patients like assembly line parts to be fixed instead of human beings. I’ll update that op/ed with a link to this article. I hope doctors read it.

  2. Carl says:

    A dentist who suffers from poor word of mouth advertising… now that’s gotta be the lead-in for some funny jokes.

  3. Stephan F says:

    I would really like a post that describes what other skills we need to learn to start and run a business.

    We build a career around a talent we have and that we have perfected over time. We are good at what we do but in trying to create a business around that skill we run into problems, because we don’t have any training in those other necessary skills. We don’t even know those skills assuming people who are successful, just have that talent.

    I believe all skills are learnable, but first we have to know what skills need to be learned so we don’t waste a lot of time on things that don’t matter.

    Business school, is great if you want to be a middle manager, but won’t teach you anything useful about running a micro-business.

    Sales, marketing, social, business (what a catch-all that word is:) are just skills but what do they even involve?

  4. zoom says:

    Hello David, How are you doing? Whats up?

    I must tell you up front that I disagree with you on this one. In my experience, the expert doctors are many times “weird” or a bit difficult, but… When you have a serious problem and you need the expert doctor serivce, you pay him/her and you suffer his/her “quirks” because to treat your problem is more pressing than to have coffee with the doctor.

  5. In some areas, there is no choice. You take the doctor that is available.

    When there is enough doctors that you can choose, your choice will be affected by the social skills of the practitioner.

    Doctors who do not actually communicate with patients tend to miss things and make mistakes.

    My point was that social skills are a necessity if a doctor is practicing in an area where there are alternative sources of treatment.

  6. Terri says:

    As an RN, I found this post very interesting. Having worked with many doctors, I have to say I agree with you. I’m recalling a brilliant Neurosurgeon I worked with in ICU in the Boston area….British, stuffy, bordered on arrogant. However, if “I” had a serious Neuro problem, even today, I’d fly to Boston to be his patient.
    BUT his social skills…close to absent. I’ve never been able to figure out why this is so, but it is. My own theory is….they go into medicine for the science of it, to cure, to heal, many times to do the impossible. I think it’s a fine line between their brilliance and social skills….Many brilliant doctors were gifted not only with intelligence, but with empathy and compassion. They’re able to balance both the science of medicine along with the patient care.
    But as your post has proved….not all can.

  7. david foster says:

    I doubt it’s just a matter of missing social skills; I suspect that an attitude of arrogance is actively inculated by medical education and culture.

    A hundred years ago, a doctor might be one of the few educated people in his community. He was held in awe because of this knowledge and because he made life and death decisions.

    Today, there are lots of educated people, many of them with much broader educations than the typical physician. And there are also lots of people that make life and death decisions. An air traffic controller may be responsible for more lives in a week than a doctor in his entire career.

    It’s time for medical arrogance to stop.

  8. Craig says:

    One possibility that I haven’t seen mentioned is that a much higher percentage (about 10%) of doctors, dentists, college professors, and scientists have Asperger’s Syndrome than the general population (about 0.5%). So, many of these individuals may not have the ability to interact effectively or even be able to learn to interact effectively. Something to consider…

  9. Sean Pecor says:

    This stream of conciousness reminds me of two experiences I’ve had in my life. The first is when my daughter Moira was two years old and playing in my in-law’s farmhouse in Vermont. I had driven to the local diner to grab take out and when I had returned Nancy was just getting off the phone with posion control. Moira had trundled upstairs to her great grandfather’s room and found a bottle of Tylenol PM. The bottle was left open and the blue color made them look like candy. She was up there for less than 3 minutes alone and still managed to eat a large quantity of pills. So when I returned, Nancy hurriedly retold what happened, we called the ER and they told us to rush her over. I drove the 25 miles of country road to the hospital in 16 minutes, averaging > 90mph in my Aurora V8. The brake pads were glowing like hot embers when I parked the car. We get Moira admitted in no time, we get seen by an E.R. doctor who handled the entire process of aiding my daughter perfectly. We coaxed Moira to drink an enormous amount of charcoal syrup and she was closely monitored by the doctor. His quick reactions and adjustment of care were top notch. EXCEPT his bedside manner was socially abnormal. He found it difficult to converse, and at one time, before we knew Moira was out of the woods, he actually told us about how Acetominophen shuts down the human body if the overdose isn’t discovered in time, by relating how his college roomate ate an entire bottle of Tylenol and waited 24 hours before telling anyone. The doctor described watching his roomate die, and it’s effects on his roomate’s body and the terrific pain he endured at the end. Asperger seems like a good explanation 🙂

    The other experience was developing an online tool to allow a patient in a health network to answer a series of questions that would be used to recommend physicians in a list from most to least suitable. Questions about alternative treatments, bedside manner and so on would help weight each physician, who would have previously answered the questions from a “different direction”. I doubt the prototype I developed went anywhere, it seemed to be a pet project of a single entrepreneurial physician, but I think there remains a need for such a system today in large networks like BCBS.


  10. Can you imagine the reaction on an insufferably arrogant or indifferent physician if you asked in a quietly solicitous way, “Doctor, have you ever been checked for Asperger’s Syndrome?”

  11. I find myself in an unusual disconnect with most of those who have commented on this post.

    Recently, the wife of a friend and colleague died. The funeral over, he related to me the story of their first meeting with her oncologist. The doctor brusquely broke the fateful news to them: she had lung cancer and, based on the type of cancer it was, the likelihood was that she would not survive. My friend was hugely upset by the doctor’s insensitivity. If he could not do good, he should at least have adhered to the Hippocratic oath and not done harm to his patient.

    Medical humanities courses focus on the need “to cure sometimes, to relieve often, to comfort always”. The renowned William Osler, (who at one time served as physician-in-chief of Johns Hopkins Hospital) revolutionized the medical curriculum in the United States and Canada with the idea that clinical instruction should begin with the patient and end with the patient. He wrote: “It is more important to know what sort of patient has the disease than what sort of disease the patient has.”

    The point is, I get the point. But, having been a witness to and victim of poor medicine, I cannot help but feel that when it comes to all things medical, competence stands atop the list of priorities.

    I am also puzzled by the spurious assumption or (if you choose) baseless speculation that poor bedside manner equates to the symptoms of Asperger Syndrome. It is true that many AS patients have high IQs which would make it easier to get into medical school. But it is also true that many of the characteristics of the syndrome are compatible with being a very good doctor. These include a very high level of respect for oneself and for humanity, often translating into an overwhelming passion for patients’ care. I would certainly be interested to know where the fact that 10% of doctors, dentists, college professors and scientists have AS comes from.

    Having seen an abundance of attitude in many doctors, dentists and other medical practitioners, I would say that God Syndrome rather than Asperger Syndrome is at fault. And for what it is worth, doctors’ receptionists tend to be at least as arrogant and unsympathetic as any of the doctors they work for.

    A final point: with the shortage of doctors in so many communities and with many big city doctors overworked and refusing to take on new patients, marketing is the least of their problems. That, too, may create the underpinning of attitude.

  12. David M says:


    My comment was not published. This does not trouble me, but it does make me curious as to the reason. Was it because of my specificity in naming Dr. Johnson?

    Your answer will help me better to understand what the unwritten rules are for comments on this site.


    Ripples: On this site comments are moderated. No reasonable comments are deleted. I do not see your earlier comment in the stack anywhere. Are you sure you posted it? Failing to take the anti-robot code test will cause your comment to disappear.

    I suggest that you try entering it again.

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