What happens when a doctor becomes a patient? Is their experience of illness any less challenging than for the rest of us? These questions have been the topic of books, movies and journal articles. I imagine many people believe that those who are members of the healthcare community are above the fray, getting special attention that is not readily available to other patients. Well, it’s true there’s a professional network into which they can tap but it may not be that simple.
In his essay Best Bad News Dr. N. Seth Trueger, an emergency medicine physician, talks about his journey of trying to find a diagnosis for puzzling symptoms that has led to a debilitating condition. He explains, “I reached out through my professional network and was connected with a neurologist with expertise in difficult-to-diagnose disorders who graciously advised my workup. Being a physician-patient can be tough— balancing when to reach out outside standard channels, how much I can or should dictate my care or pass along recommendations, deciding when to tell those caring for me that I am a physician. Too early risks coming off as entitled, but waiting too long feels like a trap.” (Journal of the American Medical Association Neurology, January 24, 2022).
Yet, having doors open because you’re a healthcare professional doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to get care that you hoped for. I recall a physician telling me of an experience with a second opinion at a well-known cancer center. He had an expectation of being respected as a fellow physician who traveled a long distance for an expert’s advice. In fact, when the “expert” entered the office he announced that he did not have any records, which turned out not to be the case. After hastily reviewing test results on his computer, he abruptly stated that there was nothing that could be done and he should get his affairs in order. Although it’s 8 years since that traumatic interaction, the experience of being treated by a colleague in such a harsh manner still lingers.
I offered an extreme example to accentuate a point. That is, being a patient can level the playing field whether you work in healthcare or not.
Coincidentally, I recently stumbled on a file dating back to 2005, which contained comments of patient evaluations of my work as a medical humanist at the cancer center in Bennington. During my tenure I had the opportunity to meet with patients who were healthcare professionals. One described the impact of my role, “Her physical presence, genuine interest, care and enthusiasm provided incalculable trust, hope, focus and laughter… pay attention to the art of medicine- in cancer therapy it makes a world of difference.”
Patients taught me that the art of medicine is and will always be about communicating interest and caring to the person who is a patient, even if the outcome may appear dire. Everyone should be treated with dignity and respect. No doubt that delivering bad news is hard but no excuse for using insensitive or dismissive language towards those who are suffering with a serious illness.
In his essay Dr. Trueger emphasizes a common experience of patients. He notes, “How can anyone navigate this? All while navigating medical bills, insurers, disability insurers, and other bureaucracies? Is this incoming call spam or an important call from an insurer?” That’s more than enough to deal with.