Genuine empathy goes a long way


Not including residency, I have been caring for patients for five years. But was I really caring about them? We all took the oath to do no harm. We all began our journey into medicine with intentions to make a difference in patient’s lives. But sometimes our intentions erode. We become jaded. We listen to disgruntled counterparts tell us how medicine used to be.

It’s true. We missed the boat. Our freedom as physicians has diminished. We work to pay off our student debt, and we sign contracts restricting the areas where we can practice. Our patients should not suffer because of this.

About a year ago I began to question my empathy toward my patients. It’s easy to tell yourself that you are empathetic, and even it’s easier to pretend. I felt as if I was doing enough to convince the patient and myself that I cared. The great reviews I received fed my belief that I was a compassionate physician, but I knew it wasn’t completely genuine.

I began to give myself a pep talk every day on the drive to work. I pictured myself in an exam room with a patient and genuinely listening to what they were saying, not just teasing out what I needed to hear. I started to consider myself as the patient’s last resort. If I could not help them, then who would? For many without insurance, this is the case.

Each patient I saw, no matter how rushed for time, I would put myself in their shoes. If a patient came in upset, I would try to find out why. I would picture my mother sitting on the exam table and feel guilty if I didn’t treat the patient the same way as I would her. It’s amazing how many new questions naturally arise from a genuine conversation and not a medical interview. What is more amazing is what you find out about the patient and how it directly dictates your plan of care.

It took practice, but today I feel more genuine as a physician than I ever did before. I don’t have that pep talk driving to work anymore, but I still remind myself throughout the day to care. The results have been great. As an urgent care physician, having a patient ask for you to be a primary care physician, is the ultimate compliment. Also, I have been able to correctly diagnose and treat patients more often. I have led fewer patients to the emergency room unnecessarily, and I have looked up more pathology than ever before.

You did not land in medicine because you do not care, but maybe the stress of the industry has gotten to you. Don’t be like the rest, be your patient’s last resort. Listen to their story and understand why they came for your help. Maybe you don’t think you have enough time in the rooms to care like this, but you do. It’s a little tweak in the way you practice that makes a difference in the lives of the patients and your own.

Philip DeGaetano is a family physician who blogs at FastPass Medicine and can be reached on Twitter @FastPassMedici1.

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