When was the last time you found yourself on the patient end of a healthcare interaction? While I wouldn’t recommend it, it’s certainly an educational experience, and one every one of us in healthcare could probably benefit from. A minor procedure recently renewed my perspective on what the view is like from the other side of the exam table, and I’m beginning to think that seeing it that way is something we all need a refresher course in occasionally.
When you’re a patient or a member of the patient’s family, anxiety is common You’re often nervous, unsure about what’s to come, and fearful of making the wrong choice based on the amount of information you have. No amount of late-night visiting with Mr. Google can provide you with a conclusive answer, and in fact can leave you more confused or misinformed than you were to start out with. That’s bad enough when we’re talking about relatively minor health issues, so how much worse is it for those who are trying to make literal life or death choices for themselves or those they love? So often we expect people who are already emotionally and physically exhausted to make overwhelmingly difficult choices with ease.
As a clinician, we can make an objective argument for either choice, but as a daughter or son or parent or spouse, that question comes bearing moral and emotional baggage they may be a heavy burden to carry. When you’re a patient or a member of their family, you’re in unfamiliar territory. What for us is just our everyday work is for them terra incognita, with strange and unfamiliar sights, sounds, terminology and expectations.
As I lay on the exam table recently having a rather straight forward, common procedure where I knew what to expect, I was still the patient. I knew the doctor was an expert but my uneasiness was still present. I found myself tightening my fists and feeling anxious. Then something beautiful happened: without a word spoken, I felt a gentle, comforting touch on my hand, soothing my clenched fist as if to say, “everything is fine”. It was a small gesture, but for me, it felt like a lifeline that someone cared.
I have been on the other end of giving those comforting touches thousands of times. However, it was only when I was on the receiving end of that gesture of a human connection did I realize just how important that small act of compassion is for patients.
When you’re a patient or a family member, you’re required to step out on faith; to accept that the clinician treating you knows best and has your best interests at heart. That handing over of authority is not easy. This is why we all need to remind ourselves every day before we head into work that what’s normal for us is not the norm for the people we serve. That’s why we can’t afford to be too brisk, much less brusque, when they’ve got questions or issues or tears to shed. That’s why we have to look up from our computers, and interact eye to eye, and offer a gentle touch of compassion. For the person on the receiving end of such attention it can make the difference between a dreadful or delightful experience that touches the heart.