Initiatives that help doctors speak to patients on a human level can only help both sides of the interaction
I read not long ago of an initiative that introduces doctors to ‘normal’ older people. One of these older people, a retired family therapist, mentioned a gastroenterologist who dismissed her complaints of fatigue by saying: “At your age, you can’t expect to have much energy.” Then, in her 70s, she switched doctors and learned she had a low-grade infection.
It happens. Not long after my husband died, I’d called in to an ophthalmologist’s clinic. For some months I’d been aware my eyes were red and didn’t feel ‘right’. Now I had time to investigate. The consultant performed his exam. “Tell your boyfriend it’s just age,” he said. That, and the bill, was the extent of the consultation.
Heavy-handed humour? Joke gone wrong? I felt affronted, an old-fashioned word for an old-fashioned reaction. When I ran out of moisturiser, my eyes cleared up. I’d been allergic to it as I discovered, no thanks to that ophthalmologist. I never did forget the insensitivity of his remark – or return to that clinic.
I was reminded of that when I read about mannequins being used in medical training.
These dolls bleed, twitch and have seizures just like real people. As no one wants to be the first patient a trainee doctor intubates, for example, it’s wonderful these dolls exist. But on the other hand, it’s already all too easy for today’s harassed doctors to regard their patients as mannequins, or at least to forget they have feelings.
Happily, empathy skills are increasingly part of medical training, both for the patient’s benefit and the doctor’s. At the University of Houston, Texas, end-of-life conversations are already being practised on mannequins.
But what about the more common situations, like routine operations? One of the most empathetic things a doctor can do is find time to stop by the bedside to ask how the patient is feeling, answer questions, assure him or her that all went well. So far, that can’t be practised on a mannequin, but if it were I’ll bet even a stand-in human would respond with lower blood pressure and a thumbs up.