I recently stumbled upon an old email from a nurse with whom I worked with many years ago at the cancer center in Bennington, VT. At the time she had asked me: “Do patients, really want their doctors/nurses to be human? Or do they want them to do what they were trained to do and fix the problem? You know that it takes about 20 years for a person to realize that his parents are human beings who don’t know it all? It’s enlightening and freeing, but also a bit disappointing. I think patients might feel the same way about their doctors.”
“So what if a person is a really good doctor or nurse, but not a great communicator? There seems be a big gap between what I have learned in nursing school about “acting confident” so that the patient feels comfortable with your care and “giving up authority for humanity” as Anatole Broyard, suggests in Intoxicated By My Illness.”
I understood that her words were a reflection of what she was questioning about her professional role but also reminded me of what I observed with nurses in the changing landscape of healthcare delivery. There was a time when nurses would not only tend to a patient’s medical problems but also listen to their stories, especially how illness was impacting their lives and those of loved ones. In observing that nurses were increasingly providing more specialized medical care to “fix” problems with less time for personal conversations, it became apparent that as a medical humanist I was entering the intimate space that nurses had occupied. I could sense they felt a loss and hoped that my medical humanist’s notes would prompt both doctors and nurses to follow up and address the patient’s concerns.
We all want our doctors and nurses to know the science of medicine. Yet, from what I’ve learned from patients, they are looking for someone who can communicate openly and honestly and soften the harsh realities of facing a serious illness. So, I think the answer to the question posed by my nurse colleague about whether we would be better off with a healthcare provider who is good at fixing us or a human being sensitive to the our circumstances is a false choice. All of us deserve both.