I recently discovered a copy of Doctor-Patient Magazine from fall 2005 in which I was interviewed about my role as a medical humanist at Southwestern Vermont Regional Cancer Center. The article’s byline was “Bridging the Gap.” I spoke about the different languages used by doctors and patients, noting that one is the talk of treatment protocols and cure rates and the other is a language of suffering and hope. I explained that I tried to bridge the communication gap between the two by documenting the patient’s understanding of their diagnosis, treatment plan and prognosis for the medical record, reminding the cancer care staff “how the impact of [their] words shape the experience of illness.” In this regard, I considered being a writer without medical training an asset.
I confided, “Patients voiced their confusion with me and often shared things they would never tell their doctor.”
As an example, I talked about a patient whose doctor asked her to complete a pain diary. Thinking the doctor suspected her of abusing the pain meds, the patient brooded with anger and shame. After reading my medical humanist’s note, the doctor was shocked to read the patient’s words because the intent of keeping a diary was to find a way to safely reduce pain.
To further clarify the purpose of my role, I explained that I was not a patient advocate, emphasizing, “This is a partnership between patient and doctor. It’s important to support both sides.” I went on to describe how doctors struggle with managing frenetic schedules, delivering bad news to patients and striving to cure, adding, “We know doctors are empathetic but the system can wear them down.”
The article highlighted a program I developed for doctors and nurses called “The Conversation Hour,” which was meant to cultivate self-awareness and explore the profession’s trials and tribulations. I noted, “One goal was to remind doctors that they’re treating people not diseases. We wanted them to remember why they chose medicine in the first place.”
I went on to explain how I would reference selected readings at the “Doctors Conversation Hour.” On one occasion, I shared a quote from Intoxicated by My Illness by Anatole Broyard who said, “In learning to talk to his patients, the doctor may talk himself back into loving his work.” What followed was a discussion about why they chose medicine and the challenges they faced in keeping those ideals while working in a system with overwhelming demands on their time.
The last line of “Bridging the Gap” read, “A medical humanist can get the conversation started.”
Now, it takes a shared commitment by healthcare providers and patients to keep open and honest communication going.