Bridging the Gap of Understanding Between Doctors and Patients

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by Christie Patient |

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Have you ever gotten into the car, started driving, and then snapped out of a trance at your destination with no memory of the trip? Let’s call it driving on autopilot. 

Relying on your reflexes to operate a vehicle is certainly one way to get from point A to B, but spending your commute in dreamland isn’t exactly the safest way to travel.

Now remember when you learned how to drive. Every part of that experience demanded your full attention: Adjust the seat, the mirrors, and the steering wheel. Keep your foot on the brake and put the key in the ignition. Turn it one click, then two, and fire up the engine. Release the key. Check the e-brake. Be aware of your surroundings. Shift out of park. Look around again.

It’s understandable that one might be overwhelmed before even leaving the driveway.

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Life can be like that, too. Something that once enthralled us can become routine. We’re attentive and devoted when we’re learning new skills, and we can practice for years before achieving a goal. But then when we achieve it and put our skills to work, it might start to feel like a repetitive nightmare.

Sound familiar?

Take a deep breath

If I’m describing your job, I’m sorry. Many people feel that way, and it can be hard to rediscover your passion.

But what if your job and the way that you do it affect other people’s lives? And what if in addition to that responsibility, your job requires you to deal with traumatic stuff? After years of witnessing it, maybe you’ve become a master at compartmentalizing — you survive by appearing to be immune to human suffering.

It’s no surprise that healthcare professionals see high rates of burnout. If our doctors seem jaded and disinterested, let’s consider what it might feel like to do their jobs. Their days are long, and their schedules are packed solid. Each patient that comes through the door brings a suitcase full of fear, uncertainty, and pain. Baggage. 

While it can and should be exciting work to sort through that and help someone feel better, it can also be a huge drain on emotional energy.

Even the best doctors can suffer from compassion fatigue, a bothersome condition that may translate into poor bedside manner, dismissiveness, and rude or insensitive comments.

As patients, it’s hard not to take it to heart when a doctor treats us poorly. But in many cases, it’s probably because they don’t have much compassion left to give.  

It may be hard to forgive someone whom you trusted to help you but who has hurt you instead. Try to imagine your doctors as whole, complex people. They are under a ton of stress, and they mess up sometimes. That doesn’t make it OK to be dismissive or rude to patients, but let’s try to empathize.  

On the other hand

And doctors? This is a two-way street.  

I’m asking both parties to consider the person they’re meeting when they step into an exam room.  

Doctors, your patients aren’t just names on a chart. They’re more than their scans, tests, and diagnoses. They are whole, complex people, too. They exist out in the world, with families, jobs, friends, and hobbies.

When they come to you, it’s because something is wrong. Something about their existence is out of whack, which is both scary and painful. And you are the expert in the field of fixing humans that are out of whack.  

You don’t need to have all the answers, but you must try your best to find them, which starts with empathizing with patients as much as you can. Listen to what they have to say. They likely aren’t versed in medicine, but they are experts at living in their own body. Meet them where they are and work together to decode their symptoms. You are a team.  

Within the rare disease community, it’s common to hear the advice to “advocate for yourself.” This is especially true for women and people of color. But if people who already feel disenfranchised, beat down, misunderstood, or dismissed show up to your office, please don’t make them advocate for themselves. Believe in their stories and do the advocating for them.  

I know it’s a lot to ask. You’ve worked hard for so long, under the direst of circumstances. I can imagine how exhausted and defeated you must feel. I appreciate that you continue to show up to help.

I’ve seen a lot of doctors succeed at being incredible listeners, investigators, advocates, and experts at their job. I don’t know how they — and you — do it. Maybe you don’t do it perfectly every day, but you try, and your patients are grateful

Do you have any ideas about how doctors and patients can better understand each other? Please share in the comments below. Please keep the conversation constructive and positive.

Note: Pulmonary Fibrosis News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Pulmonary Fibrosis News or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to pulmonary fibrosis.


Claire Richmond avatar

Claire Richmond

Christie- These perspectives are amazing! And I DID slow down to consider both, and I don't know if I've ever done that because.. autopilot, as you say. Societal norms and expectations put some unspoken rules in place, then both sides fall in line. But you are so right, we are human. Thank you for the reminder.

Christie Patient avatar

Christie Patient

Thanks Claire! I know how exhausting and traumatizing it can be to be a rare disease patient--regularly not believed, forced to advocate, gaslighted, etc.--still, we can all work on being more compassionate with each other


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