The Hufflepuff of medicine

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Recently, my mother waited for over an hour for what turned out to be a 5-minute visit with her primary care doctor. Her doctor seemed rushed and stressed, her questions perfunctory, the management plan hurried. And then she was gone. “It’s like she didn’t even know I was there,” my mom relayed to me.

This is a physician who is thoughtful, intelligent, and kind, with excellent clinical instincts. After this visit, though, my mom felt profoundly disheartened. She sensed that she had been a cog in the machinery of a busy day for her doctor, that there was no relationship to speak of in that visit, no deeper or more human connection. Just a brief and impersonal business transaction.

As I heard this story, I felt profound sympathy for my mother. And I also felt profound sympathy—even empathy—for her doctor. As a primary care physician myself, I know that some days, despite my best intentions, I am the doctor rushing her patient through the end of a conversation because my next three patients are waiting for me. Whether it’s the pressure to return phone calls in between patient visits or the mandate to document an ever-increasing number of quality measures, executing the technical tasks required of me can so easily distract me from the humanity of the patients coming to me for care. I feel the shame of letting my patients down on these days. And I imagine that my mom’s doctor would feel equally heavy-hearted.

Which brings me to Harry Potter.

A few friends and I recently had an impassioned conversation about which Houses of Hogwarts we would be sorted into. For the uninitiated, here’s a quick overview: Gryffindors are brave, Ravenclaws clever, Hufflepuffs loyal, and Slytherins ambitious and cunning.

“Clearly, I’m a Ravenclaw,” I told my friends. I am cerebral to a fault, I love learning new things, and I am a big fan of solving puzzles. Ravenclaws also embody many attributes that the medical community cherishes: intelligence, intellectual curiosity, and critical thinking skills. Every time we bear witness to fascinating pathophysiology, learn an intriguing new clinical fact, or solve a medical mystery, we channel our inner Ravenclaw. As a profession, we celebrate these moments of cognitive delight with great fanfare. We devote Grand Rounds presentations and journal articles galore to rare diseases and diagnostic dilemmas. In medicine, Ravenclaw reigns supreme.

My good friend Kerri laughed.

“You are so clearly a Hufflepuff,” she said, like this truth was so obvious that one would be delusional to believe otherwise.

Indignant, I had to stop myself from replying, “Am not!” Hufflepuffs were simple, sweet, even a little boring. I turned to the Internet to settle this disagreement, taking multiple “Which House Would You Belong To?” quizzes. I wanted to prove Kerri wrong, but soon, I found myself wondering at the intensity of my anti-Hufflepuff bias.

After all, as the many (many) quizzes I took reminded me, the classic Hufflepuff character traits like loyalty, patience, and an orientation towards community are attributes that could heal so much of what ails us in medicine. And yet the medical profession so often prizes intellect over kindness. My self-professed identity as a Ravenclaw was intimately intertwined with the more cerebral attributes we are taught to hold dear as physicians.

It turns out, Kerri was right: On my best days, when I love practicing medicine the most, I am more Hufflepuff than Ravenclaw. I lean into patience—and my patients. I luxuriate in the human connection—with people who ask me how my baby is doing even though he’s seven years old; who share their innermost fears; who ask for help when they feel desperate; who tell me about the Bruce Springsteen concert that changed their life; who offer to drive me to work in their pick-up truck in the midst of a blizzard. It is an awe-inspiring privilege to simply exist in these relationships, and to hold the trust of these human beings and their families. Ironically, as doctors, we know this honor to be true when we start medical school. And then we become overworked and jaded, the prior authorization denials and FMLA forms pile up, and we forget the beauty of the true doctor-patient connection.

Sometimes, simply being present for a patient in pain, or celebrating a patient’s hard-earned successes, or being honest with a patient who asks us with great care, “how are YOU doing?” – this is deep, restorative stuff. This fills our cup. This is the Hufflepuff of Medicine.

Perhaps, to this end, the medical profession can more radically embrace our inner Hufflepuff, instead of pooh-poohing it as I once did. Imagine the ripple effects if, as a profession, we selected for traits of loyalty and kindness with the same fervor we attach to intelligence. Maybe if my mother’s doctor had said, briefly, “you matter to me,” during their five-minute visit, the connection would have buoyed them both. And so, I hope to celebrate the spirit of Hufflepuff and bring more simplicity and sweetness to my own patients, one visit at a time.

Neda Frayha is an internal medicine physician and can be reached on Twitter @nedafrayha.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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