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Your coffee barista might be more sympathetic to you than your doctor

A customer sips her coffee in Starbucks' Mayfair Vigo Street branch in central London in this September 12, 2012

ANDREW WINNING/REUTERS

Do you ever feel like your doctor isn't really listening to you?

Forbes contributor Peter Ubel, a physician and behavioural scientist at Duke University, raises a provocative argument: You may receive more sympathy from a Starbucks employee than your doctor, he suggests, claiming that Starbucks employees often exhibit more emotional intelligence.

"It comes down to training," Ubel writes. Starbucks workers are well trained to listen to customers and to acknowledge and respond to their complaints.

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Physicians, on the other hand, may be highly trained to recognize and treat illnesses, he says. "But outside of psychiatry training, or the rare enlightened medical school, we don't even receive a fraction of the training that Starbucks employees receive about how to recognize and respond to people when they express negative emotion."

Ubel explains that this lack of emotional training shows up in audio recordings of doctor-patient interactions. If a patient with cancer tells his doctor, "I'm scared," Ubel says, his doctor replies with, "Well, it looks like your blood pressure has been a little high lately."

As Time magazine reported last year, rude physicians can even put patients' health in danger if hospital staff are unwilling to confront uncivil doctors about potential errors.

While Ubel makes the case that doctors should be more attuned to their patients' emotional needs, some online commenters have found his comparison of doctors to Starbucks employees "insulting."

"I've been compared to many things as a physician, but not a Starbucks employee. As a resident, sometimes it is hard to keep a fake smile on that 70th hour when you have children around you dying of cancer," one commenter wrote on the Forbes website. "We are scientists, not clowns. It is a hospital, not a hotel. Doctors should be nice but it is not priority one. Practicing [sic] medicine is priority number one."

Another challenged Ubel's claim that physicians lack emotional training: "I am in no way saying that all doctors have amazing bedside manner; however I am stating that it is absolutely untrue to insinuate that physicians-in-training receive no instruction on how to deal with the emotional needs of the patient population."

Is Ubel's assessment fair? Should doctors be expected to treat patients as Starbucks employees treat customers?

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About the Author

Wency Leung is a general assignment reporter for the Life section. Before joining The Globe in early 2010, she has worked as a reporter in Vancouver, Prague, and Phnom Penh. More

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