The path to becoming a physician is a long and character-defining one. From the moment one first realizes that they want to become a doctor, applies to medical school, and then goes through the rigorous next few years of exam after exam and exhausting clinical rotations—the road is certainly not for the faint hearted. Everybody is aware of how much knowledge and hard work is required to become a doctor. The part, however, that’s less emphasized is the character development and traits that are also needed. It‘s something that is not taught anywhere near enough to medical students and residents. Compassion, and hand in hand with that, being a good communicator, are just as important—if not frequently more important—than all the knowledge and clinical skills it takes to be a good doctor.
I recently wrote a piece about a 19th century painting that inspires me in this regard, and reinforces the message of the doctor as a compassionate healer. I learned about this painting, aptly called The Doctor, only in the last couple of years. I also wanted to share two very personal experiences I had earlier on my journey that had a profound effect on me, helped shape me, and made me decide I absolutely wanted to be a compassionate physician one day. I grew up and went to medical school in the United Kingdom, and although the healthcare system is vastly different from the US, most of the problems and complaints about everyday interactions between doctors and patients, along with all the typical communication breakdowns—are identical to here (as they are in most of the world).
The first incident occurred when I was in my second year of medical school. It was a busy time and I remember feeling a little bit anxious about all the upcoming exams and crazy schedule. Like a lot of students at that stage, I fell into the trap of reading around any medical conditions that could be making me feel this way—and for some reason or another, became convinced that I had some type of condition—possibly a severe thyroid condition! However silly this may appear, I was truly worried about it. I booked an appointment with a local GP, and as someone who had rarely ever been to the doctor before, this was a big deal for me. I went to the clinic and remember explaining some of my general constitutional symptoms. I think my GP quickly realized that I otherwise looked healthy but agreed to order the tests. I was quite worked up about the possibility of an underlying medical condition (I was admittedly a lot more delicate back then than I am now). However, instead of calmly reassuring me with a smile, telling me it all could be related to my insanely busy schedule in medical school or saying with a smile “too much knowledge can be a bad thing Suneel!”—this GP did quite the opposite. He berated me, made it obvious he thought I could be wasting his time—and I’ll never forget how he angrily told me he thought I had gotten myself into a “terrible state”. I left the appointment feeling even worse than beforehand, and had no faith that the physician was there to help me. Fortunately, my blood results and other tests came back fine, my exams all went great, as did the rest of medical school. But that experience stuck with me.
The second incident actually happened to my mom, again when I was still in medical school. My mom was walking our family dog one day, a friendly but highly excitable and energetic Staffordshire Bull Terrier, when he pulled too hard on the leash. My mom fell forward and badly injured her hand. Fortunately, there was no fracture, but the wound took a long time to heal and there was a period of prolonged nerve-related pain. She eventually got an appointment with a plastic surgeon, who had a reputation for being one of the best in the area. We were all very relieved that she was going to have this assessment. I couldn’t go to the appointment with my mom, I was living far away at University, but remember speaking to her on the phone immediately afterwards. She was very upset and reduced to tears. My mom is a very sweet but strong lady, and it takes a lot for her to allow someone else to make her lose her composure in public. She told me that she went to the appointment with such high hopes, but the surgeon basically thought that he couldn’t do anything to help her at this stage, there was likely to be a chronic issue, and that any intervention would be like “flogging a dead horse” (those were his words). This was my mom’s right hand he was talking about. Well, he was wrong—my mom’s injury ended up largely recovering with time and gentle therapy, and she is now fully functional all these years later.
On the surface of things, compared to the horrible life-threatening health problems and unfortunate medical interactions some people have, I suppose the above experiences are not the worst that could happen to anyone. Nevertheless, both of them had a profound impact on me at a formative time in my medical career, and made me determined that I wanted to be a compassionate physician who shows empathy to my patients, and no matter what—no patient should ever leave my care feeling worse emotionally than when they first met me.
As physicians we must always remember that patients are typically seeing us at very low points in their lives and many of them are not themselves. More than half of our job is simply to provide a calm, reassuring and friendly ear to listen, and we must never forget that. We are not there to provide judgment, get annoyed, frustrated, or say harsh things to our patients. It’s not about us, the fact that we are busy, or may finish work an hour or so late. We are in a position of trust and unique power, and can use our time to make such a positive impact if we choose to.
“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”—Maya Angelou.