Keeping The Human Touch

Ask the DOC

Medical professionals, especially in a hospital or inpatient setting, may sometimes become desensitized to the disease and human suffering that surrounds them, causing them to fall into a trap where they become jaded and gruff. Mrs. Jones, who had her gallbladder removed, may become “the gallbladder in room 409.” Therefore, it is imperative for us as a group not to lose sight of our humanity.

Since I graduated from medical school in 1980, it has been my pleasure to teach medicine to medical students, interns, and residents. I did this quite regularly, especially during my more than 10-year tenure as Chief Medical Officer at Peninsula Hospital. I would often stress the importance of not losing sight of the fact that our patients are fellow human beings who share the same feelings and fears that we all have. My point would often be the fact that, until you are a patient yourself, you cannot understand the feelings and fears that patients have. The medical profession realizes this fact and some medical schools now have classes on understanding the patient experience.

As anyone who has ever been a patient in a hospital can tell you, being hospitalized can be a scary, dehumanizing experience. The patient not only fears what their injury or disease can do to them, including causing his/her own demise, but often a patient does not know what to expect. Some experiences can be debasing or embarrassing, for example using a bedpan or having a urinary catheter placed.

My first adult experience of being a hospitalized patient came in 1999, however it was my hospitalization in 2007 that really brought this home for me. In 2007, I had a double knee replacement. I was told not to worry, that I would be up and about the day following the surgery – yeah right, that didn’t happen. I was bedridden for about 10 days. When you are unable to get out of bed, you are totally reliant on others who are often strangers. While the staff was very kind and understanding, I lost any semblance of privacy or modesty. Despite the fact that I was in my own hospital, the experience was rather unpleasant.

Therefore, I have always stressed to my students the importance of remembering that our patients are fellow human beings. In truth, nurses are far better at communicating with patients than most doctors are. Accordingly, another of my teaching points was that if you, as a physician, really need to know what is going on with a patient, ask the nurse.

If you or someone you know is planning to be hospitalized, make sure that you know in advance what to expect, including the expected duration of treatment and its possible side effects. Knowing in advance what to expect will help to mitigate the inevitable fear and anxiety you will experience while hospitalized.

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 By Peter Galvin, MD

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