We’re not just doctors, we’re ambassadors of science

The next time your patient walks into the exam room try starting off your visit a little differently. Instead of asking them how their weekend was, why not ask them, “Out of curiosity do you know any scientists?” No matter the answer, that visit is likely to be a standout memory in both of your days.

At a time when scientific debate, and rational thought, all too often falls silent to political rancor or religious beliefs a basic understanding of what science really is and how it permeates all of our lives is critical to understanding the world around us. Clearly, no one expects each of our patient encounters to be a mini-lecture or thesis defense, but the opportunity to present some basic scientific concepts exists in unexpected places and times. Somewhere between the dawn of curiosity in our development and the fixed set of beliefs that govern most of our interactions as adults existed that spark of curiosity that makes humans wonder how the world around them works. That spark may sometimes burn so buried that it seems almost impossible to re-ignite it, but it’s still there.

So how do we fit in a little scientific education between signing our prior-authorization requests and keeping up with reviewing lab results and patient visits? This is where the art of medicine meets the science, how did you fit in mini-lessons to your interns when you were a senior resident on rounds? Make the discussion case-based, but in this instance, the case is the patient you are talking to. Explain why that HgA1c is a better measure of their average glucose over the last few months than the fasting one from their last bloodwork, or why that vaccine you gave is giving them symptoms of being sick without actually giving them the flu. Does it all have to be medical? Of course not, instead of touching on that last election in the news, ask them if they saw those latest pictures from the flyby of Jupiter’s moons.

We are all curious about the world around us. The number of people who watch syndicated TV doctors, go to the health food store and scour the Internet about their disease are the very people we need to be engaging at each of our encounters. This engagement is not even limited to patients, does the telemetry nurse watching the strips have any questions about why adenosine causes those EKG abnormalities? Another opportunity for scientific engagement!

Remember all of those pre-medical classes you took from introductory biology, through physical chemistry and discussions on quantum mechanics, and embryology? The two years or more you spent dissecting every square inch of a human body? The countless hours spent memorizing drug mechanisms and complications? You are a scientist, we all are. Some of us now use our cumulative knowledge clinically, some are immersed still in the basic sciences, and some of us try and find a balance of the two. If we as a profession are successful in this endeavor of being daily ambassadors of science, then the next time a patient thinks about who is the last scientist they met, the answer will be their doctor.

Ryan Steele is an allergy-immunology physician. You can follow hiim on Twitter @drallergist.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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