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Why bedside manner matters (& how to improve yours)

Why bedside manner matters (& how to improve yours
Whether you're studying nursing or just starting your career, a good bedside manner is vital to your success as a nurse. It's also critical to your patient's recovery as good nurse-patient relationships lead to positive health outcomes.

So, how is your bedside manner? We spoke to an experienced nurse, a health and community psychologist and a health professional coach to find out what it is, and more importantly, how to develop it.

Claire Dunkley, a nurse for 25 years, says she's seen her fair share of horrific versus good bedside manner, and the latter makes all the difference.

"You're caring for people at their most vulnerable, so they are often scared, sick and alone.

"It's our responsibility as nurses to make them feel a little less scared, more at ease and comfortable - be that person that can listen to their fears."
While nursing is hectic, it pays to be respectful, empathetic, fun and approachable, explains Dunkley, who reads the news and even dresses up to form a connection with her patients.

"Nurses are busy running around a lot, but sometimes all you need to do is sit on the bed, hold your patient's hand, and listen to them for five minutes.

"Ask them stories about their life – what's important to them, their families, their friends, their pets?

"I often scan local newspapers so that I can find something in common with the patient to talk to them first.

"You just need to be friendly, happy, smiling, but also there to hear them cry, hear their fears, hear their hopes, dreams and all that kind of stuff.

"I'm not afraid to be there with somebody when they're dying."

Bedside manner is even more critical for patients in the hospital for extended periods, says Dunkley.

"[When I worked] on a liver transplant unit, we looked after patients for 12 to 18 months while they waited for a liver. Sometimes they would get one, and sometimes they wouldn't.

"So once a week, on a Sunday, we used to have dress-up Sundays where we'd dress up in some ridiculous outfit and run around and just give the patients a good laugh.

"It's very important when you're that sick that there's a little bit of bright light as well. Just do the extra special little things like if people like flowers, make sure that you get flowers.

"If people have pets they haven't seen for a while, arrange for their family members to bring the pet to the front door and either wheel them out in a wheelchair or take them out in their bed … just find out what is important to that person."

Nurses are patient advocates and provide care, so do it in a nice, friendly, almost loving manner, says Dunkley.

"Love your patients for the time that you're with them because that will shine through and make the patient's load a lot easier.

"Be there when doctors explain to patients … because sometimes doctors' bedside manners are atrocious, so nurses are interpreters. And don't be afraid to hug your patients. At the end of the day, treat them like you would want to be treated."

Psychologist Marney Lishman believes high emotional intelligence and empathy are key to an innate ability for a good bedside manner.

"Those with good bedside manner often are compassionate, caring, have a good rapport and connection to their patients – and this often comes from having high emotional intelligence.

"Empathy is the ability to see through the lens of another person …and unfortunately, it doesn't come naturally to everyone."

A lack of empathy can occur due to nature or nurture, from not being born with empathetic traits or as a result of trauma or difficult life experiences, explains Lishman.

Can empathy be taught? 

The good news is, if you're lacking in empathy, you can develop it.

"It can certainly be taught – and it revolves around teaching people what it is, what it means, raising consciousness around why it's so important and how to do it in the practical sense.

"That means teaching it with people in real-time – role plays are really important in the teaching of it. So, you can not only see the effect empathic skills has on others, but you have a chance to feel it."

How can nurses improve bedside manner?

There are many ways a nurse can improve their bedside manner, says Lishman.
 
• Self-awareness about your feelings at different times of the day
• Active listening to others when they speak
• Noticing the non-verbal actions (cues people are giving)
• Being curious and asking questions
• Seeking to understand where people are coming from

Dr Brett Factor, a specialist coach for healthcare professionals, says while some people are naturally blessed with good communication skills, few graduate nurses can intuitively support a patient receiving bad news.

"It's really challenging…They [nurses with good bedside manner] tend to have a genuine interest in their patients and an ability to listen actively and to respond to what they have heard."

Bedside manner is mostly listening, explains Dr Factor, a vital skill that connects nurses with their patients.

"Health professionals often focus on the things they say and do, but if there is something lost in bedside manner, it's usually in the listening.

"By genuinely listening, we can connect with our patients and colleagues – this is essentially bedside manner.

"There are many reasons nurses may not have worked on their listening skills, from their own anxiety, factors in their upbringing or just that they have never had it pointed out to them."

According to Dr Factor, identifying nurses who need improvement in bedside manner is equally challenging, as it's a fine line between constructive criticism and encouragement.

"Most supervisors are more supportive than critical, and unfortunately, this leaves many communication issues unattended.

"So, in many ways, this comes back to supervisors being comfortable with giving honest yet constructive feedback. Sometimes my role is in coaching supervisors."

Dunkley agrees, saying if you don't have a good bedside manner, you probably don't know it.

"It's often the supervisors or the nurses-in-charge of the shift that will identify that there needs to be a little bit of work done on the bedside manner.

"Or you might find that patients just aren't responsive. The patients themselves complain to staff and other nurses.

"So generally, it's not the nurse themselves that think they don't have a good bedside manner - it's the people around them and the people that they care for."

So, how do you teach bedside manner?

Coaching in bedside manner requires attention to detail and a gentle, non-confrontational approach, says Dr Factor.

"I run my bedside manner coaching mainly through roleplay. Well, I play the patient, and the nurse plays themselves!

"We go through scenarios that are often challenging. I might play the role of a patient who has just received bad news, a relative who is upset at the care that their loved one has received, a doctor who doesn't show respect for the nurse.

"These are the scenarios that are most difficult to maintain composure and to continue to display a good bedside manner."

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Haley Williams

Haley Williams has a Bachelor of Communication in Journalism and over a decade of experience in the media, marketing and communications industries.

She is a widely published journalist with a particular interest in writing magazine features on parenting, health, fitness, nutrition and education.

Before becoming a freelance journalist, Haley worked as a writer for NeoLife (a worldwide nutrition company), News Limited and APN News & Media.

Haley also has extensive experience as an SEO Content Writer and Digital Marketing Strategist.