Next time you go to the doctor, try to picture running into her shopping at the grocery store, or laughing along with the crowd at a movie theater. It may be harder than you think, particularly if you’re counting on that doctor for important care.

A series of studies by Chicago Booth PhD recipient Juliana Schroeder (now at the University of California, Berkeley) and Chicago Booth’s Ayelet Fishbach finds that when people feel a more-immediate need for medical care, they form a less-complete picture of their doctors as human beings. Patients, the authors say, turn their doctors into “empty vessels” filled only with medical knowledge and patient empathy. This phenomenon may be counterproductive for patients—and just as bad for doctors.

In one study, the researchers compared responses between patients waiting to be seen by a doctor and participants in a nonmedical setting; in other studies, they manipulated participants to feel more or less in need of medical care. Respondents who felt in more-immediate need of care consistently de-emphasized their doctors’ capacity for self-focused (nonpatient-oriented) emotion, as compared to respondents who felt less urgency. They also recalled fewer personal details about their physicians and anticipated being more surprised by seeing them engaged in a nonmedical experience.

Although respondents who felt greater medical immediacy expected less self-focused emotion from their providers, they also wanted and, in some cases, expected those physicians to be more attuned to patients’ emotions. The results suggest that as medical need grows, patients see their doctors more and more exclusively in terms of the qualities they think are useful to them.

The problem with this dynamic is that if patients aren’t accurately picking up on doctors’ emotions, especially in times of high need, they might not choose the most emotionally responsive doctor, Fishbach and Schroeder point out. And if patients aren’t acknowledging doctors’ emotions, the doctors themselves might feel objectified or dehumanized, which in turn could lead to burnout. Further, doctors who don’t feel acknowledged might not provide the best care for their patients. “This suggests—ironically—that patients’ own perceptions of their physicians as empty vessels could, at least partly, ultimately reduce their quality of care,” the researchers write.

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