The public needs to see physicians as human


Physicians today are not held in the same high esteem as they used to be.  We are often portrayed as callous, intolerant, clutch-fisted, know-it-alls who schedule patients around our daily golf game.  (For the record, I do not play golf.)  Physicians are accomplished in the application of science, but we are not experts in public relations.

We are human beings: mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters.  Like everyone else, we have bills to pay for homes, cars, and student loan debts.  Our days are stressful as we constantly juggle to keep up with the daily demands.  We struggle to find balance in our work and home lives.  A few weeks ago, I got a brief glimpse of how people react when we reveal our unexpected warm and fuzzy side.

My husband and I attended an informational school meeting and ran into a mother whose children I see in my clinic.  She brought her 5-month-old twins in a double stroller and wheeled it to the back of the room.  Just as the meeting began, the twins started fussing.  She picked one up, and I walked toward her gesturing that I could hold the other baby.  She smiled, handed him over, and I enjoyed holding and nuzzling him throughout the one-hour meeting.

He cried here and there but overall consoled well in my arms.  About halfway through, he was talking and cooing at me, which melted my heart.  I love babies and their smell, smiles, and giggles; I treasured my time with this beautiful boy.  Seeing patients in public allows me a glimpse into the reality of their lives outside my office walls.

As the meeting drew to a close, the learning specialist at the school approached us.  She stopped to talk with mom, admired her son, and asked how old he was.  Then she turned to me and inquired as to the age of my child?  I laughed and said, “They are the same age; they are twins.”  She looked surprised and confused (obviously, she did not witness the hand-off.)

The more interesting part occurred next when the mother smiled and said, “Yes, they are twins.  She is my pediatrician.”  The learning specialist was aghast, stunned, and speechless; her mouth dropped open in shock.  As she recovered, she said “Oh my word.  Really? (No lady.  We play this joke all the time on unsuspecting strangers.)  Are you serious?”  Clearly, she did not know what to say about this apparently rare and unexpected situation.

Why is it so unusual for a primary care physician to hold a little patient in public for a spell?  In actuality, it is probably not that rare, but public perception of physicians makes it seem that way.  I love running into my patients outside my office and have established boundaries that enable more social interaction in the public setting so as not to be cornered by a parent asking medical questions better handled in the privacy of my office.

There is nothing extraordinary about this story other than it made me realize we need to become more adept at public relations.  When we establish connections with families we care for, those stories should be told.  I love my profession and am proud of what I do, and of who I am.  All physicians should feel this way.

The practice of medicine can be extremely challenging.  We give patients our very best every day.  Doctors do care, but the human body manifests disease is different ways.  No two patients are exactly alike (even twins), and sometimes we stumble along the way as we attempt to solve health dilemmas.

The public should know more about what goes on in the minds and hearts of physicians.  In my opinion, the physician-patient relationship will always be the most transformative healing force in medicine.  It is time we collectively harness it, document it, and start a movement.  I know there are many more inspiring stories to be told.

Niran S. Al-Agba is a pediatrician who blogs at MommyDoc.

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