Why You Should Be Kind to Your Kid's Pediatrician

Why You Should Be Kind to Your Kid's Pediatrician

Why you should care

Because your rudeness could harm your child’s health.

Few situations are more stressful than seeing your child sick, curled up in the fetal position, listless or in pain, or vomiting uncontrollably. So much is at stake, and so little is apparently within your control. Even the most mild-tempered parent can lash out in fear and desperation.

But new research suggests that parents can affect their kids’ health outcomes — by being rude to the doctor. The study, published this month in the journal Pediatrics, referenced findings from Johns Hopkins that attributed more than 250,000 deaths per year in the United States to medical errors. This new study reveals that:

Rudeness could account for 40 percent of medical errors

“You’re risking your child’s life, and other children’s lives, when you are rude,” says Amir Erez, the study’s lead researcher and a management professor at the University of Florida. The mechanism, he says, is surprisingly simple: Exposure to rudeness impairs the working memory of medical professionals, which, in turn, can cause them to overlook information, misdiagnose, fail to mix medications correctly or even fail to appropriately resuscitate patients. Rudeness is “really devastating to their performance,” Erez says. And the effects are apparently contagious, spreading across an entire team.

The recent study followed 39 neonatal ICU teams as they simulated treating infant medical mannequins in various emergency situations. Several teams were confronted by an actor playing the role of an angry parent. Erez and his research colleague, doctoral student Trevor Foulk, noted that the teams who experienced the emotional outbursts performed poorly compared with the control groups. In fact, they made life-altering mistakes in nearly all 11 of the study’s measures, from diagnostic accuracy to prescribing a treatment plan.

The starkness of the findings surprised David Fleece, a professor of pediatrics at Temple University’s Lewis Katz School of Medicine. But Fleece recognizes that rudeness can negatively affect quality of care, even for those with a patient’s best interests in mind. “A physician who feels anger toward unpleasant or rude parents may avoid engaging them in communication, and may make some decisions based on anger or the desire to prove the parent wrong,” he says. Fleece suggests that health care professionals be mindful of their feelings — and manage the negative ones — before continuing care: “I always say, ‘Don’t blame the child for the parents’ behavior,’ and this is time to heed that.”

Erez began his research in 2005, focusing on positive moods and emotions; he didn’t believe rudeness could affect physician performance. He suspects that TV shows like House, which depicted a genius doctor with poor bedside manners, may have given the impression that rudeness is common, even acceptable, in a medical setting — whether on the giving or receiving end. Unfortunately, as the study reveals, these interactions have negative consequences.

Erez acknowledges that rudeness is not entirely avoidable — there are situations in which parents “need to scream,” he says. But being aware that a doctor is busy trying to diagnose your child, along with many other patients, is critical. Sometimes it pays to be nice — it could mean the difference between life and death.

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