In A Few Words, Showing Empathy for Anxious Patients

The receptionist cradled the telephone between her ear and shoulder as she jotted down the patient’s message.

“I don’t know when the doctor will have the results of your biopsy but I will let him know that you called,” she said.  I could hear the toll in her voice from having to repeat this response so often.

I also imagined what it would be like being on the other end of the receiver. I asked myself what would I have wanted to hear in response to “When can I expect the results of my biopsy?”

Not soon enough were the words that came to mind.

As the receptionist placed her note in the doctor’s incoming message box she realized I had been within earshot. “Is there some way I could make waiting for results easier for patients?” she asked.

“How does this sound? ‘I don’t know when the doctor will have the results of your biopsy, but what I do know is–it is not soon enough!”

“It would certainly help me if I were the patient ” the receptionist agreed.

In many cases, we cannot change how quickly results may arrive, or the fact that doctors have hundreds of these queries to respond to in a single week. But demonstrating empathy for patients who are anxiously awaiting test results can help ”normalize” their experience.

As the resident medical humanist at a regional cancer center I spent a lot of time listening to patients and discovering how uncertainty can be an untreated side effect of a serious illness. I also understood the difference between feeling ignored and feeling cared for could be a matter of just a few words. The incident I just described was one of countless experiences in which small changes could make a big positive impact on patients.

Patients, what other day to day changes could help you manage anxiety when waiting for test results or other news?

Healthcare professionals, do you have a preferred way of helping ease patients’ worry in situations like this one?

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  1. Pingback: Will Direct Access to Lab Results Cause More Distress, or Less?

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