Eye contact silently makes very powerful statements.
It says, “You are important to me or what I’m saying to you is important.” It says, “I care enough to want to see you when we speak and to see your reaction to what I’m saying.” Often it serves as an indication of honesty, sincerity, compassion and caring. And of course – between intimates – it can be a sign of love.
For all the important things that eye contact communicates, its lack also has many messages. “I don’t care about you or I’m not telling the truth.” “I’m not really interested in our conversation.” “I’m afraid.”
But something new arose recently when I visited two separate doctors who were so involved with entering data about me into their computers they never really had the time to actually look at me as they spoke. I missed that communication contact and the caring it indicates.
So feeling aware of my need for a direct gaze, I began to notice how different doctors have come to handle the demands of both new health law and technology. Questioning one physician with whom I feel comfortable, I explained that as I’ve aged and more doctors have come into my life, I’ve recently noticed that our communication feels so much less personal because they rarely look at me directly. With obvious frustration, he explained that under recent health care regulations, physicians are required to go paperless. That means all information must be typed into the computer that now accompanies each of them into the examining room. And that takes precious time away from more personal contact.
Hearing his explanation and seeing his frustration made me understand the reason for this change. And I began to explore how my other doctors deal with this new requirement. One I visited entered the examining room with his computer, sat down in front of my husband and me and apologized, saying, “I have to get all this information into the computer first, so please excuse me for a minute.” He typed, examined me, briefly typed once again, and then laid his computer aside, pulled his chair up close to us and spoke directly to both of us with constant eye contact.
Another physician explained that he doesn’t carry a computer, but just as soon as he leaves the examining room, he records all pertinent information on tape and later plays it back to type it into his database. This takes more of his time, but he said that he feels the need as a surgeon to look directly at his patients when examining their conditions and explaining their needs and his intentions.
Oscar and I questioned one doctor about the possible use of a scribe to record notes, information and observations, but he explained that both in time and terms of added expense it wasn’t feasible.
And so we, as patients, are faced with a conundrum: Just how important to us is eye contact with a doctor? Does his or her training, expertise, experience and past record trump what we are also looking for? I guess we’re seeking both compassion and competence. So all I can say is that I know it when I see it.
Freelance writer Judy Kramer can be reached by email at [email protected] She is author of “Changing Places: A Journey with My Parents into Their Old Age.”