‘Fixing’ the Patient

The common experience during most medical training is the emphasis placed on diagnosis and treatment of illness, rather than understanding the way that illness moulds and changes the life of the patient. It is only after we spend some time with our patients that we appreciate the opportunity and privilege we have of sharing in their life experience and start to glimpse the potential role we have in their journey, something our nursing colleagues will often readily understand long before the doctors among us.

Sadly, the ever-increasing specialism we see in the medical world furthers the concept of fixing the part, making it harder to see the whole, especially if we work in isolation rather than in a team. In this Covid era, where fortunately the need for and benefit of compassionate care has been emphasized both in the medical world and public media, our care and support for each other has become even more vital in underpinning our care of the patient.

This was expressed recently in Dame Claire Marx’s candid and refreshing resignation letter as Chair of the UK General Medical Council, which we reproduce here in part.

Dear Colleagues,

I wanted to write to you all to let you know that I am stepping down from the GMC, having recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Since receiving this news, I’ve been reminded once again of the importance and power of kindness in everything we do as doctors.

Compassionate leadership has been a cause I’ve championed throughout my career, from my early days as a surgeon, to my position as Chair of the GMC. Now, as a patient, I’ve appreciated that kindness from my medical team and found its impact to be profound.

As doctors, the interactions we have with our patients are a crucial part of the medical care we provide. Our empathy and professionalism shape a patient’s experience almost as much as our diagnostic ability or surgical skills, and they shape our own experiences as clinicians.

As an orthopaedic surgeon, I was often in the fortunate position of being able to ‘fix’ my patients. Performing a hip replacement and knowing how much it would improve someone’s quality of life is immensely satisfying.

But receiving my diagnosis reinforced for me that neat outcomes aren’t the norm in most areas of medicine. Many doctors carry this weight, but kind words can soften the blow of bad news, and empathy and understanding undoubtedly ease the burden. There is no greater comfort than human connection.

The events of the last year and a half have meant many doctors have been dealing with unimaginably sad situations. Facing them has required great fortitude.

In those dark moments, it is the support of our colleagues that pulls us back up. Being able to laugh and cry together, to share our experiences and lean on one another provides the courage to keep going. In a profession that rises or falls on the strength of our teams, dignity and respect for each other is indispensable. So, in addition to compassion for our patients, we must show respect and kindness for colleagues.

Perhaps then, in areas of the world where medical citadels were once resistant to prioritising care and compassion, we will now find open doors that PRIME as an organisation is able to walk through. As well as sadness then, is this also a time of greater opportunity to bring God’s Kingdom into the medical world?

Dr Robert Sadler is Chair of PRIME Management Team. This article is republished from their website by kind permission.

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