They say talk is cheap. But if you’re dealing with a difficult diagnosis or chronic condition like arthritis, you may have found that a doctor’s good bedside manner and her ability to talk respectfully and, perhaps more importantly, listen empathetically, is among her most valuable assets. If so, you’re not alone.

In a 2005 Harris Interactive poll, 84 percent of respondents said it was extremely important that their doctor was “easy to talk to.” An earlier Harris poll found patients were more concerned that their doctors listened to them than whether or not they were up to date on the latest medical technology and research.

David Fritz, MD, for one, isn’t surprised by the findings. “I think [patients] assume that the doctor has a minimum skill set or they wouldn’t be a doctor – and now that we have the Internet, a doctor who doesn’t have the answer can look it up right away,” he says. “So I don’t think it’s as much a matter of ‘does my doctor know what’s going on?’ as it is ‘does my doctor care about me? And if they do care about me, they will do a better job, even if they don’t have the answer right now.’”

Dr. Fritz graduated this May from the University of South Florida (USF) College of Medicine in Tampa, a school that focuses on what he calls, the “touchy-feely” aspects of medicine, as well as the technical skills to be a good physician.

At several points through his training, Dr. Fritz says he and his classmates were engaged in role-playing situations with representatives from the University’s School of Mass Communications and were videotaped and evaluated on their communication skills. At the end of each block (a section which focused on a certain area of medicine, such as musculoskeletal diseases or nervous system disorders, for example) part of the exam would be a simulated patient encounter in which the students were evaluated on such skills as politeness and the ability to communicate in language the patient can understand, he says.

But USF is far from the only school to focus on these less technical aspects of practicing medicine. In recent years, coursework in interpersonal skills, more commonly know as bedside manner, has become standard for almost every U.S. medical school. Throughout the country, medical schools, including University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey – Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and the Mayo Clinic are using instructional videos and professional actors playing the role of patients with a wide range of personalities and illnesses to teach bedside manner.

At the Medical College of Ohio in Toledo, the largest individual gift in the college’s history – $1.9 million – came with the stipulation that it be used to teach bedside manner. The result: The Ruth Hillebrand Clinical Skills Center, funded with a gift from the estate of a New York psychologist who had been treated rudely by doctors, was dedicated in 2005. Since then, the center has been helping medical students brush up on their bedside manner.