Context: Peabody's maxim ‘the secret of the care of the patient is in caring for the patient’ inspired generations of doctors to relate humanely to patients. Since then, phrases such as ‘managed care’ have impersonalised caring. The term ‘patient-centred’ was introduced to re-personalise caring. Ironically, however, such terms have been defined by professionals’ preconceptions rather than patients’ experiences. Using patients’ experiences of doctors being (un)caring to guide doctors’ learning could reinvigorate caring. Interpretive phenomenology provides qualitative research tools with which to do this. Methods: Ten patients, purposively selected to have broad experiences of primary, secondary and tertiary health care, consented to participate. To stay close to their lived experiences, participants first drew ‘Pictor’ diagrams to represent relationships between themselves and professionals during remembered experiences of (un)caring. A researcher then used the depictions to structure in-depth, one-to-one explorations of the lived experience of caring. Verbatim transcripts were analysed using template analysis. To remain very close to patients’ experiences, the researchers assembled a narrative description of the phenomenon of caring using participants’ own words. Results: Caring doctors were genuine. They allowed their own individuality to interact with patients’ individuality. This made participants feel recognised as individuals, not just diseases. Caring doctors listened and spoke carefully, encouraged expressions of emotion, were accessible and responsive, and formed relationships. These factors empowered participants to be actively involved in their own care. Little things like smiling, shaking hands, admitting uncertainty, asking a colleague for advice and calling a participant unexpectedly at home showed that doctors were prepared to ‘go above and beyond’. This was caring. Conclusions: These findings provide medical educators with an interpretation of caring that is truly patient-centred. Coupling technical proficiency with human qualities – being genuinely empathic and respectful – within doctor–patient relationships is the essence of caring.