Study: Surgeons With Clear Masks Received Higher Ratings

Lindsay Kalter

August 04, 2021

Surgeons who wear clear face masks ― as opposed to standard masks ― were rated significantly higher by patients when it comes to empathy, building trust, and providing understandable explanations, according to study published in JAMA Surgery.

"Wearing clear versus covered masks suggests that not seeing the surgeon's face negatively affects patient understanding, perceived empathy and trust," the study's authors write. "These findings should alert surgeons, because patient perceptions may not be detectable without purposeful attention to communication. We must make every effort to protect the sacred physician-patient relationship during these unprecedented times."

For the study, which was conducted last fall, 200 patients were enrolled from 15 surgeons' clinics spanning seven subspecialties. Before each clinic day, surgeons were told to wear either a clear mark or a standard mask for each new patient. They wore each mask about half the time.

Patients then completed a verbal survey that used questions from the Clinician and Group Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems. The 10-question survey included questions about surgeon empathy and trust, as well as the patient's impression of the surgeon's mask.

Patients reported better communication when surgeons wore a clear mask, suggesting that the ability to see a doctor's face during interactions is more important than medical professionals once realized.

The findings are especially noteworthy as jurisdictions reinstate mask mandates in response to rising COVID-19 rates.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) changed its mask guidelines in July. The CDC now recommends that vaccinated people wear masks in public indoor settings to help prevent the spread of the Delta variant in areas where there is substantial, high transmission. That was a reversal from the CDC's May guidance, in which the agency advised that fully vaccinated people need not wear masks indoors or outdoors in almost all situations.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has abruptly changed health care in ways never before seen," the authors write. "Masks are an important and necessary part of preventing the spread of COVID-19; however, there have been consequences on the surgeon-patient relationship."

Lindsay Kalter is a health freelance journalist who has held positions with Politico, the Boston Herald, and the American Heart Association. Aside from WebMD and Medscape, her work has appeared in publications including The Washington Post, Boston Globe Magazine and Business Insider.

JAMA Surg. Published online March 11, 2021. Full text

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