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Doctors empathise with patients - but do patients empathise with doctors?

Posted Nov 19 2013 11:13am

Going back in to hospital doesn’t get easier just because you are a regular. If anything it gets even tougher because you know what is in store. I have just returned home after a ten day stretch and further surgery. As you would expect there is a blog post coming after my little journey but before that post that I wanted to write this particular article and share it with you.

I take great pride in the fact that my care is very much a partnership between patient and healthcare professional. Empathy has been talked about as a key component in the partnership.   In fact I have read many articles about the best doctors are those who show empathy to their patients. After much exploration though I struggled to find articles that talk about patients who can empathise with their doctors. We can debate why this is the case for ages but for me perhaps one reason is that we often choose to take for granted the work that our HCPs do in helping us. Whilst we all want collaboration and partnership maybe that doesn’t always extend to a real understanding of what the medics go through.

I think that I am just as guilty as others in this department. That was until this particular in-patient stay.

The day before I went in to hospital my surgeon and I had a very open telephone call about the surgery. Nothing unusual there except I do remember thinking that he being even more cautious than normal and very specific about each individual point and potential consequence. I knew that post-transplant surgery is inevitably more complex than pre-transplant so again I sort of shrugged it off. Arriving in hospital something didn’t feel quite right. Not about my health but about the atmosphere on the ward and the way he spoke to me. Again I was told that he would do absolutely nothing to put me in jeopardy or take any risks whatsoever. I then asked a question and all the answers to the other questions in my head became obvious.

Tragically an incredibly brave fellow bowel transplant patient had passed away a few days earlier. It hits all us bowel transplant patients very hard when one of the family doesn’t make it. You see, because there are so few of us we are a family. We share the successes and collectively feel the pain. That family feeling doesn’t though just apply to fellow patients. Right in front of my eyes I was seeing the pain and upset felt by the transplant team and my surgeon. Our surgeon.

Nothing that anyone could have done could have prevented this tragedy. This patient was just the bravest person you could ever wish to meet. There standing in front of me was a person who not only felt his own pain but felt the pain of every single one of us and also the pain that this patient’s family were going through. He was devastated.

I tried to explain that we all know the deal when we go through this surgery. We know the risks. We also know that he cannot be at our bedside 24hrs a day. I told him that he also has a family and a life and that there is no other person or surgeon that we would want in our corner than him. Those were not empty words they were the truth. I mean it, we all mean it – he is simply the best.

His response was astounding. So much so that I am trying to write it down for you as close to word for word as I can.

-         My family understand that I need to be here for you all. I have dedicated my life to you and I want to and need to be there for you every single minute of the day. It is my responsibility to look after you and to care for you. I feel the pain you feel and when someone passes away I have to deal with my own demons and try and find a way of dealing with it for all you!

 

I have always subscribed to the fact that doctors who show greater empathy with their patients can often be better doctors. Now I subscribe to the fact that patients who can try in some way to understand and empathise with what their doctors go through can often be better patients. When you have this empathy flowing both ways then perhaps you get the best of both world and that can only help lead to better health outcomes.

I have grown to live by the mantra that only patients can truly understand what other patients are going through. What if you then begin to appreciate that your doctor really does understand what you are going through. You stop being a hospital or insurance number and become an equal. Now the possibilities are endless.

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