Comforting the patients – is it a Doctor’s job ?
Several times in a day, physicians find themselves in a situation breaking bad news to the patients. At other times, physicians are informing patients about a preliminary results which needs further testing. And that further testing can lead to a potentially disastrous news. ( Or may be a good news ! ) How should a doctor handle that. One can make an argument that since empathy is a skill not taught in the medical school, may be it is not a Doctor’s job to comfort their patient. But lets not jump to a conclusion
Before answering this question, lets put ourselves in the patients shoes.
Imagine yourself being taken to a big corporate building (aka hospital). Then you are put into one of the rooms in that big building. You know you cannot leave that building without permission. Then several strangers come into the room and poke needles, take your blood, put cuffs and tubes around you. When you ask them what is going on, they have no clue. They tell you to talk to another stranger (aka doctor) about it. Finally this busy looking stranger comes in to the room. He flaunts his power, tells you the results of a test done on you, casually tells you that further testing may show a diagnosis which can result in your death. Before you could overcome the shock, he leaves the room. You lean to your family for support but in your heart you know that they cannot help you. The only person who may have the key to your cure was that stranger who had been in the room for 5 seconds. How do you feel at this point !
If you do feel scared, disgusted or hurt, you would rather leave the building. But you can’t leave without that stranger’s (aka doctor’s) permission, who does not give a dime on how you feel. If you do sign out AMA you will be stuck with a big hospital bill which your insurance may refuse to pay. So you wait in that room again to have more strangers come into the room and poke needles into you. And of course a long cold night dealing with the suspense of what that stranger is going to say tomorrow.
This is how the patients view their experience. Now lets tackle the argument that if empathy is so important then why is it not taught in the medical school. It is because the whole academic system believes that empathy is common sense. Every physician has empathy but it needs to be triggered. Empathy is common sense until the humanity of a physician is constantly dealing with death, disease and misery. Persistent exposure to vulnerability of a human being makes physicians so numb that the empathetic response does not get triggered when someone is diagnosed with cancer etc.
It is a physician’s duty not only to diagnose and treat patients but also to make patients comfortable to their new surroundings and experience. Patients call it bedside manners. Those extra minutes spent to comfort the patients may not be reimbursed, but the value they add to your reputation is enormous. It is what defines a good doctor and makes them a popular doctor.