No One Is Free From Harm: Changed by a doctor's empathetic care
I became acutely aware of the importance of a doctor's words and empathy when a very close relative was hospitalized for inflammatory bowel disease about 18 years ago, when he was a teenager. This relative is very private and doesn't want to be named.
While the other physicians had a pre-set agenda and list of questions when they did their rounds, the gastroenterologist would modify his agenda to my family member's needs each day. I recall that one day when a test was scheduled, my relative didn't want the test that day. So the gastroenterologist said OK, we'll do it tomorrow.
Physicians tend to be very rigid people. That doctor's flexibility really mattered. He balanced the need to know with the patient's wishes.
We doctors like to make rounds when it's convenient for us. This GI specialist switched that. He would ask when it would be convenient to make rounds so members of the family could be there. Then when he walked in, he would smile, sit down for what seemed like a long time, cross his legs, listen and then talk and give us ideas.
My family member had a very positive response to this doctor and his approach. It gave him energy and a willingness to move forward and keep fighting. That's not an easy task when you are so sick. Doctors' words are so powerful. We underestimate the power of words in medicine. I felt his words had a healing power.
The doctor suggested a new nonsurgical treatment that had shown promise in other situations. My relative received that treatment, and the outcome was great. My relative has been doing well for many years now.
Without that doctor's empathetic attitude, the journey would have been extremely difficult. We don't have any way of measuring empathy. In medicine, we say if you can't measure you can't manage. That's incorrect. We can measure empathy in our hearts. It's not a number.
That was very powerful for me. I stay in touch with that doctor.
It's important for young doctors to learn that. It's easy to learn medicine but not easy to put ourselves in our patients' shoes and really understand their struggles. We try every day, we fail, but when we show empathy, patients feel that.
When I teach medical students and residents, I emphasize empathy and try to set an example. It's every moment, you never know when you have to use it. You could be in the hallway when someone stops you for a moment. It could be the exam room. It could be the local store when someone tells you bad news.
I work constantly to build a culture of empathy in my organization, showing by example how it's done, one patient at a time.
This doctor made me more aware of the need to understand my patients' situation and the impact of illness on their life. I think I changed a lot. You hear that often when doctors become patients. You change for the good.
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