Patience and patients

Editor’s note: author preferred to remain anonymous after discussing own medical history in the following post. Please feel free to direct all questions regarding the article to myself or any of the Progress Notes team. – SM

“When was the last time you saw a doctor for your diabetes?”

It was 3 o’clock on a Friday afternoon, and I was interviewing a patient. Crammed between a wall filled with bulletin boards and the patient’s bed, I stood trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. Hospital beds, doctors, and nurses blew by the door as I began a history and physical on this poor man.

His gaze slipped past me to the wall as he tried to think about the last time he had been to a doctor. After a moment he answered: “About three years ago, I think.” I felt a brief twinge of irritation at the answer, and tried to school my face into a more neutral expression. Noting that answer down, I continued on with my history taking in the chaotic hallway and soon forgot about the encounter.

Three weeks later, I sat in a doctor’s office and thought again about that patient. Why had I felt so irritated at his answer?

We are taught in medical school how important it is to control and prevent complications from chronic conditions, and it is frustrating to see what we consider to be a nonchalant attitude towards personal health. When there are no external factors limiting access, it’s seen as irresponsible when patients don’t try to keep up with their health. I maintain that being frustrated at patients when they behave so cavalierly is understandable (if not entirely desirable).

However, on a lot of levels, it is also incredibly hypocritical for a lot of us to be that frustrated.

Physicians are notorious when it comes to lack of self care. In a year and a half of medical school, I’ve had numerous lectures, seminars, and electives all promoting the value of self care. We are encouraged over and over again to take care of ourselves and to not neglect our own well being. And yet, I myself avoided getting a PCP until a health problem necessitated having one. I’m supposed to know better, and yet I still procrastinated on it. What right did I have to judge that patient?

Sitting in that doctor’s office, I reviewed my own actions. I was no better than my patient, stranded in those hectic hallways. In some ways, I was worse. I knew why I needed to go to a doctor for regular check ups. I knew what the complications of my chronic condition could be, and yet I avoided the doctor’s office as much as possible. It was poor form, frankly put.

Remembering to take care of ourselves is a tough lesson to remember sometimes, as we rush from room to room, patient to patient and get buried by work.

I sat through 18 months of lectures and reminders about the importance of self-care, but that lesson didn’t hit home for me until I met this patient. He reminded me that to become better doctors, we must first learn to be better patients.

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