The one thing that all those years of studying didn’t teach me was that my patients were going to become my greatest teachers.
Here are the five most important lessons I have learned from my patients:
- Listen first. In school we are often taught the importance of “telling” patients what they need to know about a drug or a medical condition. We practise over and over imparting the top five or so points about a medication, from how to take it to the myriad of possible side effects. How many times have I spit out the knowledge in my head, then after listening to the patient I realize that it was either too much information, not applicable to their daily life or they just didn’t understand. Over the years I have become a much better listener. My patients have taught me that each person and situation is unique, and to truly care for them means to simply listen.
- Trust requires work. When a patient comes to me for advice, they trust my assessment of their current condition and medical history. They trust I am not simply giving them random advice, that what I advise is backed by science, and is evidence-based and supported by my education, training and experience. Upholding this trust requires work. As much as possible I need to keep up with recent guidelines, studies and lines of inquiry in evidence-based medicine.
- Gratitude is important. Many patients over the years have demonstrated amazing perseverance throughout incredible pain, suffering and loss. They have taught me to keep finding the positive, and most especially, to endeavour to live with a posture of gratitude.
- Look beyond the surface. As health professionals we often don’t see beyond the immediate presentation of the person in front of us. A patient’s short temper, harsh words or impatience is often directed at us or our staff. Over the years I have learned that the root of behaviour is far different from what I see. Patients have taught me that behind the behaviour is often an array of other issues such as pain, inability to cope, grief, and other emotions or life circumstances that have nothing to do with me, so I don’t take it personally.
- Empathy goes a long way. Even if I cannot directly relate to being held captive by addiction or experiencing unrelenting pain, I can still express empathy for the human suffering of my patients. Even in tough situations such as a person going through narcotic withdrawal, the care I provide is much more effective and meaningful when patients feel that, first, I am on their side, even when I have to say no or make a tough call.