Being a doctor is often more about talking to people and communicating than it is about the scientific practice of medicine. This is something that is unfortunately not taught in medical school, and it’s left to newly qualified doctors to realize very quickly as they start their careers.
Throughout the busy and hectic day of any hospital-based physician — no matter what their specialty — one of the most common requests we hear from nurses is whether patients’ family members can also speak with us. Barring few exceptions, these requests will always be diligently met with duty of service.
Occasionally however (and this is the absolute minority), I’ve encountered physicians who shrug their shoulders and wonder, “What does the family want?”, or “I spent so much time talking with the patient, why does the family need to speak with me now?” Some of these feelings can be legitimate, especially if the doctor feels rushed and under pressure to move onto the next patient. But it makes me internally shudder if I see any doctor who doesn’t feel it their duty to talk with their patient’s family.
If time is tight, as it invariably always is in a hospital environment, certain techniques can be utilized to make the most of it, such as making sure you establish one main point of contact in the family (who can update other family members) and scheduling a particular time of day for the family to be present in the room at the same time you are going to see the patient. Another thing that I personally always do, especially in the elderly, is to call the family from the phone when I’m in the patient room giving my explanation (having them on speakerphone) so that they can also hear from you at the same time and ask any questions.
Here’s a simple thought to underscore the importance of doctors always speaking to the family, that anybody should be able to relate to. Imagine just for a moment the person you love most in the world is lying in a hospital bed sick and unwell, vulnerable and at a low point in their lives. Imagine this person (and you) have little medical knowledge or any understanding of the internal workings of a hospital. Imagine this person you love has had their happy daily life unexpectedly turned upside down by illness.
Imagine feeling intensely their anxiety, concern, and stress. Imagine the future they and you had imagined is now up in the air with a potentially life-threatening situation. Imagine how sad and worried you feel entering the hospital, with so many questions that need answering. Who can help you understand what’s wrong and what the plan is? Who can help allay your fears and calm you? Who has the authority to reassure you?
That person is you, doctor. It’s not the nurse, case manager, or anyone else. It is the part of your day that will be most remembered and appreciated by that anxious person who just wants a few minutes of your time. Not the busywork, the paperwork, the ticking boxes on the computer. But your words of explanation and hope. In nearly all cases, your presence and going back into your patient’s room will be met with relief and sincere gratitude. You may be tired, exhausted or hungry — to the point that every patient may seem like just another name on your list. But that name is a person. A human being who has a loving, caring and concerned family.
Therefore, when any doctor hears the words; “Doctor, that patient’s family wants to speak with you,” see it as your ultimate calling to go and speak with them. Of all the things you do during your day, it can make the most positive difference.
Suneel Dhand is an internal medicine physician and author of three books, including Thomas Jefferson: Lessons from a Secret Buddha. He is the founder and director, HealthITImprove, and blogs at his self-titled site, Suneel Dhand.
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