“Variability is the law of life…no two bodies are alike, no two individuals react and behave alike
under the conditions which we know as disease.” – William Osler, MD

In my previous blog I noted, “patients’ want to be good patients,” which prompted several people to ask, “What is a good patient?” 

According to the Oxford English dictionary the definition of the word patient is “to accept and tolerate delays, problems or suffering without becoming annoyed or anxious.”

The mere definition of the word in and of itself implies an expectation of how we are to respond when our lives have been interrupted by illness. For those of us who are not yet ill we can only imagine…

“I want to be a good patient,” she said.

As a writer I heard an opening line. In my role of medical humanist I understood her definition of good patient was valuable information for doctors to know.

I asked,  “What is a good patient?”

“A good patient” she said “is someone who handles their disease well—who understands what their doctors tell them and how they want you to be. When I am not doing well and sometimes I’m not, I get frightened, sad, even depressed but I do my best to mask it. Do other patients mask it better than I do?”

I ask myself if doctors sometimes mistake silence for comprehension.

“There will never be a time when I am not a patient. I am trying to be a good patient—I don’t want to disappoint anyone.  But we will all be disappointed. While my disease is treatable, it is incurable.”

“I can’t stop wanting to be a good patient,” she continued “but I know it is more important that I have good doctors.”

“What is a good doctor?” I asked.

“Good doctors know their medicine— they know its limits.  Good doctors know they can’t make it go away, they can only hope with me it will continue to move slowly, very slowly.”

How did my note help the patient and, in turn, her doctor?

With note in hand her doctor asked, “Tell me, what it is that you would like to know?”

(3) Comments

  1. What is striking to me after a couple of readings of this rich little piece is how rarely, in my experience, anyone in the medical constellation talks openly, or indeed at all, about being a good doctor/patient/nurse. What is required? What is expected? Evidently it takes a medical humanist to broach this simple yet impossibly difficult topic.

    Much to ponder here. As always, thanks, Celia.

  2. Ceil, Yes much to ponder, and someday I may have to be that “good patient”.

  3. Judy Raffone

    In February, I had to take on a new role: patient. I have been a physician for over 30 years. I work daily at open communication, active listening, trying to meet the patient/family where they are, try to have discussions that are important to them while also talking about things that are important for their health. I strive to do that to best meet their learning style – verbal, written, pictures, on line material, call backs from my nurses or me to review their understanding and questions that have come up. Do we get it right every time, absolutely not, we can only do their best. That being said, to be a good patient, you need to continue to improve your active listening skills. On any given appointment, I know before hand how I am feeling – STRESSED, stressed, TIRED, tired, COMPLETELY AWFUL, and last week WHINEY! I let my nurse know up front where I am emotionally that day as it effects what I communicate, what I hear, what I retain. If I am in any of the CAPITAL states, I always write down my questions, new medications, medications I stopped taking, what side effects has happened through the week and when (my treatments are weekly). Other times it’s a combination of memory (I’ve reviewed it mentally getting ready) or written. At the start of this process I always had a support person with me – generally my husband – paper and pen (I am faster than writing notes on an I-hone) so that I could take notes, have my questions readily available to ask. A good patient (and their support players) and good physician, good nurse, good ancillary staff, combine together to make a great team if everyone takes a few precious minutes to be open to find out who you are as a patient. You as a patient need to understand that your team is doing the best they can on any particular day, recognizing that stress changes things. In the past 3 1/2 months, I have consciously tried to self manage stress with a laugh a day, resting more (and my team will tell you I need reminders) and maybe on treatment day, many laughs. This helps me understand their message and ask appropriate questions so I don’t sabotage my treatment.

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