Wendy and I have spent a lot of time in various doctors’ offices lately, and I’ve been reminded that there is a right way and a wrong way to treat a young patient and her family.
Here’s an example of a doctor’s visit that didn’t go so well last week. It started late in the afternoon, after school. The doctor was new to us, arrived fifteen minutes after we were in the exam room, did not introduce herself, nor called me anything but Mom. She did not address Wendy by her name once. We were there because Wendy had hurt her knee, but the doctor asked a lot of questions about her medical history. It bordered on nosy. Granted, Wendy’s medical history is chock full, and I understand that there are a lot of questions, but not necessarily for a hurt knee, other than the fact that she can’t take NSAIDs like ibuprofen because it is bad for her kidney. The doctor also commented on her bifocals as unusual, again nothing to do with Wendy’s knee. As we left (and thank God that Wendy was out of the room already) she said to me, “Don’t worry mom, she has to do SOMETHING the normal way. Maybe her knee will be it.”
Unhelpful comment, doctor. It is not your place to editorialize my daughter and her medical history. It’s your job to tell us what to do about her knee. Meet us where we are in this moment.
Today we had a totally different experience. We saw a doctor who has been following Wendy since the beginning of her illness, almost since the first day of it. First, she saw us downstairs in line waiting for coffee and paid for our order. Then she met us upstairs, where we addressed concerns I had about medication and blood pressure. She had the nurse come in both to say hello and to confirm medications and prescriptions. She ordered labs, and though it was a new computer system, made sure that it was working, printing out the labs herself after the front desk couldn’t find them in the new system. She looked at Wendy’s ultrasound, told us what it said, and we arranged for a meeting in a month. She wished Wendy happy birthday, and we left.
Granted, this second doctor has known us for a long time, and we have a very special relationship with her, but that doesn’t mean that the first encounter with the first doctor was what we should be willing to accept as care for a child. For the sake of argument, let’s say it is the difference between being courteous and being helpful, and it applies to everyone from the doctor to the receptionist at the front desk.
Being courteous is answering questions directly, but not necessarily providing any solutions for the patient or parent. Being helpful is when you team with the parent, even momentarily, so that you can come up with a solution to the problem at hand, so that the parent doesn’t feel like they’ve been hung out to dry. Being courteous is saying that your patient needs a test and it’s in Building Such and Such. Being helpful is showing the parent how to get there, why it needs to be done, and what the results will mean.
Let’s face it, families are rarely in the doctors’ office because something good is happening. Therefore, the parent is often stressed. The child is either sick or in pain, and additionally he or she can pick up on the parent’s distress. Add to the mixture the traffic getting in, finding a parking spot, the possibility of getting bad news, any new information that might be thrown at the parent, and there’s an overwhelming sense of doom in the waiting room. No one is there because they want to be.
So it’s important to treat these families better, then say, someone who is ordering a double-tall-skinny-latte at the drive up window at Starbucks. “I’m sorry, I can’t help you with that,” rings a little hollow when you have a sick kid in tow, knowing that tests will be ordered, waiting for bad news, in a room that (let’s face it) could be a little more child friendly.
The difference is compassion. Compassion is the key to a successful trip to the doctor.
Compassion is the empathetic concern for the misfortunes of others, accompanied by the desire to help to alleviate that suffering.
Most people get into the health care business because they are compassionate people who want to make a difference in the world. They have bad days too, and hey, they’re human. When you encounter a whole office that is merely courteous, however, then you know that something is wrong. Sometimes the system has beaten compassion out of them with deadlines to see so many patients per day, etc. So for the sake of argument, let’s go through some of the things that make a health care professional helpful.
Dear Health Care Provider:
Please read the chart before you walk in the door.
Please learn my name and don’t just call me “Mom.” If it’s possible, learn if my child has a nickname.
Please tell me who you are and what you job is, and how you can help us.
Please listen to my concerns.
Please listen to my child and talk to her like she is a full partner in this process, because she is.
Please explain what the next steps are and what your concerns are; tell me why we are doing what we are doing.
Please follow up as promptly as you can with information on tests.
Additionally, the truth is that it’s the little moments, those little compassionate moments, that we remember in health care. We remember when the doctor gets on the floor to play with our kid, we remember when they sing a song together. We remember when the nurse looks for samples so you don’t have to immediately go to the pharmacy.
We remember when the doctor tells us bad news and holds our hand.
Ask any parent of a chronically ill kid about a compassionate moment that a health care provider showed, and they will be able to give you ten, because those are the moments that we WANT to remember. It provides dignity and humanity to an already suffering population.
It is the compassion that binds us together, and it’s better for the bottom line. People who feel that they are valued come back. The Schwartz Center for Compassionate Care in Boston has tried to measure compassion. In this article, they show that hospitals that recruit candidates with compassion, train how to be more compassionate, and reward those members who show true compassion have better retention rates, and fewer return visits to the Emergency Department.
Compassionate Care makes a stressful situation better.
What if you’re not encountering helpfulness and compassion? Some things I do as a parent include introducing myself to everyone in the room: Doctors, nurses, medical students, you name it. I introduce my daughter. I give a brief history if the doctor hasn’t done so to everyone in the room.
If I am not getting the answers I want, I say so, sometimes not so nicely. I have been known to say, “If I ask you a thousand questions you need to answer them, because I’m the mom” (Please note, this perhaps wasn’t my finest moment.)
If I’m nervous, I write down my concerns ahead of time to make sure we get to them.
I ask why questions. “Why are we doing this test? Why do you think that?”
I thank the health care provider and try to name the thing they’ve done. Every time. I make Wendy do it too. “Thank the Phlebotomist for the blood draw.”
I’ve also written complaints when something has gone seriously wrong with patient care.
My daughter is more than a diagnosis, she’s a person. The health care system can’t just treat her, they have to treat the whole family. It’s just the way it is. We are a package deal.
If you are a health care provider, please consisder be more compassionate, more helpful, and not just courteous. Just being courteous won’t get you anywhere.
Rather, it will encourage me to find a better experience for my daughter and my family.