Is it possible that being a patient can make us better doctors?

Originally published in July/August issue of Minnesota Family Physician – Reflections July 30, 2012

As a family medicine physician, I occasionally find myself in need of medical care.  I am well aware that we are advised not to provide self-care.  Indeed I find it personally difficult to remain objective when my own health or that of a loved one is in question.  In addition to following our ethical guidelines, I have found other benefits to seeking healthcare from my own doctor, not the least of which is getting better.  Experiencing the medical system as a patient is a tremendously effective mechanism for developing empathy.

I have heard patients report on the challenge of reaching a doctor by phone or having a simple question and wanting to have it answered by me, the doctor that examined the problem on its initial presentation.  Listening is a powerful tool in understanding the experience of a patient, arguably being the patient is yet a more powerful tool for understanding how powerful the patient doctor relationship truly is.  It reminds me that we are all patients in our healthcare system.  Any American who seeks care at some point in life will be a patient in our healthcare system, even those of us that are employed through some aspect of this system.   For me this is a powerful motivator to strive for constant improvement in what we do and how we do it.

An unexpected outcome of my doctor visit was having to wear a splint on my hand for 10 days, awaiting a follow-up visit and x-ray.  I quickly remembered as a right hand dominant person, just how many activities during the day require the use of my right hand.  I admit that I just might have a bit of stubborn perseverance.  I found many ways to complete the daily necessary tasks, including typing on an EMR with one hand.  There were nonetheless several tasks that no matter how hard I tried required two hands.  The most surprising of these tasks was putting on my stethoscope.

The Littman Classic II SE apparently is not designed for use by individuals with the use of only one upper extremity.  After several one handed attempts it became clear that putting a stethoscope on with one hand would result in an aggressive and resounding ear piece thwack to my nose.  It wasn’t long before I realized that I could ask my patient for help.  This simple exchange also surprised me.

I as the physician who was being asked for guidance required my patient’s participation in order to do so.  Without exception, the request was received with a pleasant response and a bond of connection.  We were helping each other so that I could help my patients.  It was a small gesture, but a significant one.  I like to think this can serve as a metaphor for us working together with our patients to improve the work we do as family doctors.  I wonder in what ways working with our patients and asking for their help can help us be more successful in improving the health of our patients.

Samuel Hanson Willis, MD

Family Medicine Physician


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