He marches in the door, leaving a metaphorical trail of dust and debris in his wake. The elderly patient must not even be sure what consulting room his doctor has walked into. He emerges into view ten seconds behind, shuffling slowly with a gait aid. The doctor is already seated, looking at his papers and seemingly busy. He motions without looking up for the patient to sit and starts with his barrage of questions.
His manner is inpatient and dismissive. He’s the doctor, he knows everything about you already. He will choose what he wants to tell you, and assume you cannot know any better. The consult is short, the doctor had already decided what the patient needed, and once the plan is regurgitated it is time to bid adieu. The doctor has already clocked off, he’s busily writing notes and it’s time for the patient to go. But the patient doesn’t know. He’s waited out there for hours and has only seen this person for five minutes. Surely it’d be a longer consult, right? There was barely an introduction, he said something about the scans and suddenly it’s over? He’s not even sure he understands what the management is. He quietly and patiently sits there, waiting for a conversation that will never come. Instead, the doctor curtly says “You can go,” a hint that his presence is no longer welcome in this white, sterile room. And so the gentleman hoists himself up, politely says his thanks and shuffles back out. Cue next patient.
I’m not joking, this is something I have witnessed. As I have said in my previous post (A fly on the wall), medical students often go unnoticed in a bustling and crowded hospital. Whilst I made it out to be demoralising then, in this piece I’d like to share why it can be a gift. See, it allows us to experience and observe patient encounters in its raw honesty. It allows us to be privy to some of the most intimate moments of a person’s life, and gives us the opportunity to learn as invisible spectators.
I have encountered many amazing role models throughout my experience. Beautiful bedside manners, pinpoint diagnosis accuracies and enough charm to knock your socks off. People who take the extra minute to comfort the patient, to answer seemingly obvious questions and remain compassionate in the face of aggression. I have gained insight into what a good doctor is, and no doubt that is what I will aspire to become. However, I have also seen the types of practitioners I don’t want to be. The anecdote above describes simply one example, but interactions like this happen commonly, daily. It can be hard to judge, was he having a bad day? Did something happen in his personal life? Or he is rushed so off his feet and behind schedule that he genuinely has no time but to get to the point? All are valid excuses that we can empathise with. Doctors are humans too and completely fallible in every sense of the word.
But what concerns me are those who are not having a bad day, who are not struggling internally and who are not so busy they cannot afford common courtesies. The people who forget that being a medical professional is also in a sense customer service, and the way we behave can alter a person’s entire perspective on their experience. Yes, you may have all the expertise and knowledge to diagnose and treat the person. But that is not what patients come back for. Whenever I hear someone describe a doctor, their praise and admiration is more focused on the attitude and care they felt they received. “He’s a lovely person,” “She took care of generations of my family,” “He is the nicest man,” all compliments focusing on the person themselves. People may not always remember the medical jargon thrown at them during a consult, but they will always remember how they felt as they walked out that door. Of course, niceties cannot excuse inadequacy and needs to be paired with appropriate medical knowledge, otherwise charming people can get away with murder. I think everything I have said so far can be summarised in one phrase. Do not forget your empathy.
The parent who is about to lose their child, do not forget the pain they must be fraught with as you deliver the death sentence. The person who came for news regarding suspicious shadows on their scans, do not forget the anxiety and fear that fills them with dread. The woman who is asking you question after question regarding her seemingly normal pregnancy, do not forget her nerves and stress as a first time mother. The things that we as medical professionals become desensitised to, do not forget that it is a privilege. We have the unique opportunity of having people at our mercy during their most vulnerable times, thus a tiny piece of kindness and patience can go a long way. It is a cliche, but “do unto others as you would have then do unto you.” Because one day, we will all be the person who is shuffling into the room, nervously awaiting for what, or who we may have to confront.
I do not mean to preach to people far more qualified than me on how to do their job, nor am I condemning an entire community of professionals. These are merely things I have witnessed from my very few years in this industry, I am sure that I still approach many topics with a naivety and idealism that perhaps may not exist in a few years time. My friends and I have joked about the cynism and desensitisation that could consume us all, but I have met so many more amazingly kind, sincere and warm doctors than the example I described here. I am certain that such negative interactions are only a minority, but regardless may we try to treat everyone we encounter with the respect we all deserve.