So much of a practitioner’s success depends on their communication skills. I know there are a lot of brilliant heart surgeons out there who feel that their job isn’t to make friends, but to perform major surgery with a cold and clinical eye…but these doctors don’t usually see their patients on a regular basis.
Even the most innocuous doctor’s appointment inspires unease for most people. That’s why I’m constantly cracking jokes when I’m at the gynecologist’s office-it’s certainly not because I’m having a good time in those stirrups. I’m joking around because I’m trying to forget where I am…and to cover up my fear that this is the day I’ll get unfortunate news.
As open as people are with their doctors, they are much more open with people in my profession. After all, a physician only knows the intimate details of your physical health…your acupuncturist is familiar with all aspects of your health, physical, emotional, and mental. So it is extremely important to really focus on building a rapport with patients.
I’ve had some awful experiences with doctors. My childhood physician should not have been practicing medicine at all; he was definitely unstable. When I was younger I accepted his quirks with the equanimity of a child who knows no better-but once I was older (maybe eight?) I lived in terror of my yearly physicals. Being eight years old and having an old, gruff doctor yelling “Have you been a bad girl? Have you let boys touch you? DON’T LIE!” was…well…disconcerting. I mean, I was eight. I didn’t even have the slightest idea of what he was talking about!
Then there was the unnamed gynecologist in Boston who refused to let me get an IUD, because I was unmarried and she felt that most unmarried women who got IUDs became promiscuous as a result. Mind you, this was 2008, and she wasn’t some withered old harridan-she was in her late 30′s.
And a doctor’s appointment I had a few years ago with a man I’ll call Dr. C taught me a valuable lesson about patient-practitioner relationship-namely, if you want patients to come back, try not to scare the living hell out of them.
During this particular appointment with Dr. C, I had made a list of a few issues that were bothering me. (I hadn’t seen a doctor for awhile due to not having health insurance.) The four basic issues were a loud and crunchy knee, a lump in my breast, a slight tremor in my left hand, and a lump growing out of the side of my middle finger, right below the nail. Of these issues, I was only really worried about the breast lump and tremor-the other issues I just decided to mention in passing. This doctor, who I had never met before, was quite jovial, but pretty laissez-faire about it all. He listened to my knee crunching and said, “yeah, you have a crunchy knee. It’s not a big deal.” Then he looked at my tremor and said, “Yeah, you have a slight tremor. It’s not a big deal.” He felt my breast and said, “You do have a lump. Probably not a big deal, you might want to get it checked out though.” I thought, “Isn’t that what I’m doing right now?”, but I said nothing. If he wasn’t overly concerned, I probably shouldn’t be either.
Then he looked at the cyst thing on my finger. “Hmm,” he said. Hmm? He touched it and looked at it more closely. “Does this bother you in any way?”
It was ugly but painless, so I answered no.
“Well,” he said. “I have to say, this particular type of growth looks very familiar to me.”
“Oh,” said I, “Is it some kind of cyst?”
“Actually, the last time I saw this on a patient was fairly recently. It wasn’t a cyst, it was a sarcoma.”
At that time I didn’t have as much medical background as I do these days, so I had to ask what that was.
“Cancer,” he said somberly. “And not just any kind of cancer. Deadly. Fatal. Cancer.”
He actually said it like that, with a period after the deadly, fatal, and cancer! It was so surreal, I kind of thought he was joking with me. “Seriously? Are you being serious?”
“Well..what happened to the patient?”
He looked me right in the eyes and said, “It spread through his entire body very quickly. It’s a very malicious cancer. We’ll schedule you an appointment to have it removed right away…and, did you come here alone? Did you want me to call anyone for you? You probably want to be with your family right now?”
It was that last sentence that really made it sink in-this guy knew I had only a little time left.
Except that you’re reading this article right now, several years later, so I guess you’ve figured out that perhaps I was misdiagnosed?
Fast forward to the surgery, and it was a cyst. It was on a nerve, so the recovery hurt terribly, but I am obviously alive and well enough to write this today. Fortunately, I am not the type to get upset over incidents like this, but another type of person would have had their last will and testament all written out. And I learned a valuable lesson-when you are dealing with people’s health, you have a certain level of power over them. Don’t abuse that! People are coming to see you because they trust that you will take care of them…and striking the fear of death into their hearts is not “taking care of them.” If you can spend years in school mastering the human body, surely you can master some communication skills as well.