I’m a designer and one of the things designers talk a lot about in our circles is the need to inject empathy into our practice. No where is this needed more than in the practice of medicine. As a Crohn’s patient of over 10 years I have witnessed plenty of times when a lack of empathy was missing. In those times it felt like my doctor had no idea what I was going through and how I felt about what it is he/she was saying to me. Most doctor’s have good intentions but they sometimes don’t see how their actions, as well as the actions of their practice, can be interpreted by their patients.
Part of the problem I think is a lack of authenticity. There have been multiple times when I felt like my doctor wasn’t being genuine and wasn’t allowing themselves to offer a personal touch. There are many examples of this from different doctors I’ve had.
For instance, I’ve had times when it felt like my doctor was just going through the motions, repeating the same ‘ole lines over and over again. Like, do they not realize they already told me certain things?
This was the case with one doctor I had. Every visit it felt like they had absolutely no clue as to what was said or what treatment advice was given in prior visits. It was as if I was being seen for the first time each time I visited. Some advice would be given, maybe an idea for a treatment plan, but nothing done to really lay down a path towards treatment and recovery. Each subsequent visit might include a discussion of what went before but inevitably my doctor would start repeating the same things said before, telling me about what was going on in my body, information he/she already told me and already knew. I wasn’t even asked if I was already told about this information. A broken record to say the least.
In another serious of instances, a different doctor I had would put me on a path with a variety of different drug treatments. My symptoms either got worse or stayed more or less the same. Basically, I would have lots of bowel movements per day, some uncontrollable, along with blood in my stool and cramping. With any new drug treatment, my doctor would keep me on it for a few months at least to see if I responded well. But with many treatments, the symptoms wouldn't get any better; sometimes worse.
When I didn’t respond well to a drug, the new treatment would almost always be presented as, “This is an exciting new treatment!” One of these new, exciting treatments involved a cocktail of three different antibiotics. It felt like my doctor was just pimping treatments he/she learned from whatever conference he/she attended or some publication he/she was reading at the time. This treatment kind of screwed me up a bit. I started getting neuropathy in one of my hands and feet. I don’t think my gut flora has ever been right ever since. My doctor’s reaction to all this wasn’t positive. Just no real empathy. Just a “well...that’s just how it goes” kind of attitude. This was but one of many incidents that completely diminished my faith in my doctor.
This is also true with things like correspondence, newsletters, blog posts, and other things. Many times the information sent to patients isn’t done with any sort of empathy in mind. The information itself is formulaic and isn’t anything that our doctor’s actually had a hand in whatsoever. Sure, information about our condition is certainly useful. But it would help if I am hearing this from my doctor or others that are part of my doctor’s practice.
In fact, what prompted this post was an email I received from one of my previous doctors. What was readily obvious though was that it wasn’t actually from my doctor. It was clearly some sort of marketing scheme to get current patients to signup for a newsletter. Basically, the group my previous doctor is with likely hired a marketing company. The recommendation was to send out a newsletter request to existing patients so that they can send us information to reclaim our health. Out of curiosity, I responded and immediately received an email with a link to an article to a site that is not their own. The crazy thing was that the content itself wasn’t anything that I think my doctor would have even endorsed.
What I received wasn’t authentic. It wasn’t actually coming from my doctor. Nor was the content anything that my doctor likely believed in. Instead, it was coming from whomever my doctor hired to do his/her marketing. Content they believed had value. What I would have preferred to receive was information that he/she found useful and informative to me personally. Stuff that my doctor actually read or seen that he/she recommends other patients read or see. But that’s not what happened here. Instead, I received something that was highly formulaic, static, and lacks empathy.
Patients stick with a certain doctor because they trust them. Without empathy, that trust can quickly break down. Also, patients tend to stick with a doctor because of their personality. Patients expect to receive an experience that reflects a doctor’s personality, tone, and beliefs. When they don’t then that too can cause trust to break down. Such was the case with each of the incidents I mentioned above. None of these incidents seemed to match what I perceived to be as authentic with my doctors. What I experienced simply didn’t match what I felt to be true with who my doctor’s were.
It’s clear to me that doctors need to step up and figure out how to better inject more empathy into their practice. That includes having better notes on the visits they have with their patients, a better understanding of how their patients will react to new treatments, as well as how patients will respond to various forms of correspondence no matter how good the intentions. Otherwise, trust will diminish and a patients faith in their doctors will go down.
End result is that more stress is added to a patient’s life, which is the last thing any patient or doctor needs. After all, mental health is just as important as a patient’s physical health. Apprehension with how a patient is being treated by their doctor is a huge source of stress and can contribute heavily to their mental health. I know because, quite frankly, I have received lots of experiences that contributed negatively to my mental health. As such, the doctors that understand this and can be more empathetic towards their patients can help avoid adding yet more mental stress in an already stressful situation.
So I stress this to each and every doctor: Be true and authentic with each and every patient. Doing so will go a long way in giving each and every patient a better chance towards recovery. It’s not just about do no harm, it’s also about doing what is right. Keep it real!