15 January 2008

Empathy in Health Care

My mother's oncologist is a person rather lacking in empathy and social skills. The medical care seems to be fine - my mother's coming up on the third anniversary of her diagnosis with Stage IV lung cancer - but the human aspect of the care has been frustrating and occasionally infuriating.

Last week, in the Science section of the Times, there was an article on the need for oncologists to act compassionately towards their patients. In a mad moment, I ripped the piece out of the paper and dropped it in the mail to my mother's doctor, with an unsigned note along the lines of "Perhaps empathy could be your New Year's resolution".

My mother's reaction to this was part titillation, part horror: "You did what?"

Well, last night my phone rang 'round about 8:00. It was my mother. She'd just gotten a phone call from - (dramatic pause) - her oncologist. The doctor called to see how she was, and to remind her that she needs to schedule a scan to check the status of the cancer. The phone call, unprompted, after dinner, was completely unprecedented.

Do you think that perhaps the doctor took the article to heart?

40 comments:

Sunshine said...

That's frickin awesome.

When I miscarried my first, I think I had the same doctor. The one time I REALLY REALLY needed some good bedside manner and he blew it. Asshole.

Type (little) a said...

YOU for president. I love it.

My approach of telling the docs they were being jerks was often met with hostility. I wonder why??

Gina said...

That's great! I think that sometimes doctors aren't necessarily assholes, but that sick people becomne to routine that they forget the human aspect. It sounds like you reminded him - I hope it sticks.

flutter said...

I think it's awesome if that article helped. I think, in some cases hyperintelligent people just can't relate to people well emotionally.
They don't intend to be assholes, they just don't know how to relate.

LAS said...

That's great to hear! When I had breast cancer - I came across some doctors that were not compassionate at all - so I switched and the doctors I switched to were great. Now that I have officially survived - and I don't see them as regularly, I frequently call with urgent questions, in a panic that I have it again. They are so great - if they don't hear from me for a while, the call to check on me!

Awesome Mom said...

That took guts and I hope that the article did indeed help that doctor realize that he was being a jerk.

Whimsy said...

You're SO my hero.

bubandpie said...

That sounds like a successful strategy! I'm always amazed, though, at this idea of talking to the doctor on the phone. In Canada, doctors are apparently incapable of using phones - there is no calling the doctor (much less receiving a call at home!).

Don Mills Diva said...

YAY for you! That's awesome. Sometimes people get caught up in the day to day and need reminders like that!

wheelsonthebus said...

THat was probably really, really hard for him to get. yet, in the long run, I bet he will count himself better for it.

Sober Briquette said...

Wow, good for you, but better for the doc. He was not so arrogant as to dismiss it.

On the other hand, I know a woman who was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and her doctor could not stop crying about it. All I could think was that this was a doctor on the edge, and it didn't make me feel very confident.

Julie Pippert said...

You? Are my HERO. That was awesome!

And it was a tactic that allowed the doc to maintain face, handle it on his/her own, process through something really hard and then, wow, come out with good resolve.

Yes, I think it worked. Little steps.

Julia said...

You rock hard core!
What is most amazing is to see him do something, rather than throw the article out or set it on fire while swearing profusely. This is an encouraging story. Let's see if he keeps it up...

pootandcubby said...

That is awesome! He may not have even realized that he had such a terrible bedside manner - just imagine the difference you made in his patients' lives by doing that one small thing.

-andi

Eva said...

Wow, AWESOME.

Pinky said...

I'm amazed... (a) that it happened, (b) that you didn't tell me, and (c) that six commenters assumed the doctor in question is male!

Her Grace said...

Magpie, you ROCK. That is awesome.

I went with my grandma to one of her chemos when she was battling colon cancer. Her doctor told her her hair looked like Dennis Rodman's. She was in her seventies, and had been getting her hair done for decades every Friday. It breaks my heart even just typing those words to remember the look on her face.

I almost called him after the appointment. I wish now I had.

Warm thoughts to you and your mom.

susan said...

Good for you--we all need to advocate for more empathy.

I hope your mom continues to do well, too.

meg said...

Incredible. You did what I would have thought to do, but would not have had the guts to. I love it!

Janet said...

The doctor was probably shocked to receive anything through snail mail. ;)

Good for you. Whatever the reason, I'm sure the change is welcome.

Mayberry said...

Nice work!

BarbaraCA said...

Sweet!!!!

MamaGeek said...

You. rule.

My Mom's oncologist is very caring and sincere (quite the polar opposite) and his "manner" has made all the difference.

I applaud you Magpie and I send your Mom many healthy vibes.

the mama bird diaries said...

That rocks. Your mom is lucky to have you. Sending lots of prayers and healing energy to your mom.

Beth said...

Too bad it took an anonymous note in the mail to remind your mom's doctor that he is supposed to be showing care and compassion with his patients.

But how great that he called. Hopefully it will be a permanent change for the better!

Suz said...

It's FANTASTIC that he called. My mom saw a wonderful doctor up in NYC for her stomach cancer, but his bedside manner was awful. He made my sister, a pediatric resident at the time, cry when she dared to ask a few questions. The caring and concern really do make a difference.

niobe said...

There seem to be so many doctors like this that I wonder if it's cause or effect. Do non-empathetic people tend to go into medicine or is the lack of empathy a protective reaction?

In either case, good for you!

She She said...

The doctor DEFINITELY took the article to heart. Whatever your reasons and emotions when sending it, isn't it great that s/he was able to receive the message?

painted maypole said...

wow. way to get things done. i think it had to be the article. i hope it continues.

Nancy said...

You rock. I hope she really, really takes it to heart down the road as well.

Nap Warden said...

Way to put it out there!

Ozma said...

yes! Brilliant idea.

I think that doctors often have a certain type of personality. They are scientist types remember? They can be reserved and have to be detached in many ways. Also, there is emotional burnout in those kinds of professions that can make them less empathetic.

That kind of reminder was probably good for that doctor. It's hard for them to know sometimes how they affect people.

nonlineargirl said...

Wow! Sounds like in any case you did a good thing. Nice work.

slouching mom said...

what a fantastic story.

you are a woman of action.

and i hope that your mom's doing well.

Nancy J. Bond said...

I really, really hope so...and I hope your mother does well. Kudos to you!

melissa said...

That's sooo awesome! That's the kind of stuff I wish I cold do but don't have the cajones to do it.

Aurelia said...

You are my absolute hero for this. This kind of thing is right up my alley!!!

Victoria said...

Okay - *that* gave me goosebumps! Good for you!!

MadMad said...

No, really. You. Are. The. Best. That is AWESOME! Ovaries of steel, man. Ovaries of steel.

pinknest said...

i read that article, and wow, that is so awesome that you did that.