Several years ago, when I was working as a hospital physician in Florida, a patient’s wife said something that has always stuck with me. The service was very busy on that day, and I was doing my best to get through everybody in a timely manner. I was with a patient whose wife was at the bedside, beside herself with worry. I was focused on the main presenting complaint, but it was clear that the wife had a couple of questions that needed answering.
I stood up after spending a few minutes with them, and my body language clearly signaled that I needed to move on, despite the fact that I was still intending to answer her questions before I left. Sensing my hurriedness, the patient’s wife said to me (quite respectfully), “Doctor, I know my husband is just another name on your list, and you have lots more patients and are very busy, but his life is my world.”
I was a bit taken aback when she said this, partly because I’ve always considered myself very big on making sure I spend enough time with my patients. Nonetheless, I am glad that she said that to me, because it made me reflect upon the importance of what we do on a daily basis. I don’t think there’s any doctor out there who deliberately plans to seem in a hurry and cut their patients off, but at the same time, the realities of frontline medicine are such that physicians are currently overwhelmed with bureaucracy and computer tasks for every patient encounter. For their own sanity too, they can’t finish work at 11 p.m. every day! This has to be balanced with the need to always be available to answer questions and communicate well with our patients.
How hard-hitting but true those lady’s words were though. Just another name on the list. It’s something for every doctor to think about, because it’s so easy to get stuck in a routine, churn through the patient list, and forget that the person in front of you is a uniquely individual human being who is loved by so many people. They have stories to tell and their time in the hospital is a very low point in their life. They could have been waiting several hours for those precious few minutes they have with you, and when you’re in the room, they will frequently hang onto your every word.
I remember hearing a story once about the advice the current Queen of England, Elizabeth II, received very early on. It went something like this: Over the course of your life, you will meet hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of people. To you, it may feel like just a shake of another hand for a few brief seconds, but never forget that for the other person it could well be the highlight of their life, something they’ll always remember.
Now I’m not equating being a physician to being a King or Queen (although that would be nice!), but the same general principle applies. Those few minutes you meet the patient and their family when they are sick and unwell, will be their most important interaction of the day and they will acutely remember everything you say and how you act.
Do not take this responsibility lightly; it’s a privilege and honor to be in a position of such trust and authority (no matter how much it may feel like “just a job”). No matter how jaded or disillusioned any doctor is out there, they should still have an appreciation of this.
Therefore doctor, be fully present and treasure that patient interaction. It’s far more important than any box-ticking or paperwork exercise. Those moments will probably also be the most meaningful for you as well. Before you enter the patient’s room, take a couple of deep breaths and reflect on this unique responsibility and how you have the ability to really make a good impression. For those few minutes, make the patient feel like the absolute center of your world and very special.
Because as Maya Angelou said: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
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, DocThinx.
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