“Some people have these skills naturally, but not everyone does,” says Daniel Duffy, MD, senior associate dean for academic programs at the University of Oklahoma School of Community Medicine in Tulsa and former executive vice president of the American Board of Internal Medicine. “They are skills that can be taught.”

For students who don’t come by the skills naturally, learning them in medical school is critical, because since 2004, medical students have had to pass a test of communications and interpersonal skills to graduate. If the doctor specializes in internal medicine, pediatrics, family medicine or many other fields, he or she must pass another evaluation to be able to sit for the examination by the specialty board, says Dr. Duffy.

Proponents say learning these skills does more than lead to a medical degree, certification and warm and fuzzy feelings from patients – it also makes doctors more effective as doctors.

In a 2001 study published in The Lancet, doctors in Europe concluded that “practitioners who attempted to form a warm and friendly relationship with their patients were found to be more effective than practitioners who kept their consultations impersonal, formal or uncertain.”

The study, which analyzed 25 surveys concerning doctor-patient relationships, consistently found that doctors with good bedside manners had a better impact on patients than less personal doctors.

A separate study reported in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings found that when patients were asked to describe their best and worst experiences with doctors, they rarely even mentioned the doctor’s technical expertise. Instead their issues – good or bad – tended to focus on doctors’ personalities. They used adjectives such as “honest,” “compassionate” and “respectful” to described good doctors, and words such as “arrogant” and “callous” to describe bad doctors.

Other studies have had similar findings. Analyzing data from four clinical trials conducted in practice settings with diverse patients, doctors at New England Medical Center’s Institute for the Improvement of Medical Care and Health in Boston found that better health, (measured by blood pressure or blood sugar, functional status, or subjective evaluations of overall health status) was consistently related to the quality of the doctor-patient relationship. And, in New Zealand, doctors who surveyed 370 patients in doctors’ office waiting rooms found that those who reported a good relationship with their doctor were one-third more likely to be taking their prescription medication than those who gave their relationship with their doctor lower ratings.

“The way doctors interact with patients, interview patients, tell patients information – all of these things are critically important to the patient setting, critically important to making a correct diagnosis, critically important to lowering the patient’s anxiety level by demonstrating competence and confidence,” says Dr. Duffy. “That’s essential to patients’ well-being and security.”