Sunday, August 02, 2015

Doctors are people too


My August 2, 2015 column.
Everyone, at one point or another, has to deal with a medical practitioner. We’re all mortals so getting sick is a certainty. In fact, the number of doctors one has to deal with and the number of interactions one is forced to have with them increase correspondingly with age. 
Like clockwork, I turned hypertensive when I hit 40. The signs of wear and tear surfaced soon thereafter. I undergo an executive check-up every year, but regular visits to doctors have become inevitable. I’ve experienced waiting in line for hours for consultation or for medical procedures. Because I have the worst case of gastroesophageal reflux disease, I have found myself in hospital emergency rooms on far too many occasions, doubling over in extreme pain similar in manifestation to a heart attack. I know what it is like to be a patient needing immediate care.  
My reaction when I read that tirade against doctors written by a columnist in a provincial paper (I think it went viral primarily because many people did not agree with what the author was saying) was to scoff at the writer for being out of touch with reality. The author basically ranted against doctors for being uncaring and unprofessional and asked if resident doctors have the right to be called doctors. Of course her question was ridiculous—residents are doctors who are taking up a specialization. It is irresponsible, however, for anyone to make generalizations of any profession. There are unprofessional, uncaring, incompetent doctors, but it is irresponsible to associate these traits with all doctors. At the same time, it’s very easy to harbor high expectations of doctors and to attribute God-like qualities to them just because they have the capability to heal people.
Of course, we all wish doctors could meet appointments on time, be readily available for patients and have more time for them, and be as nurturing, empathetic, and solicitous as we want them to be. But it is also important to put things in context. The reality is that even if they want to, doctors usually do not have the luxury of being warm and cuddly all the time. There are also situations when they need to be firm, stern, and unyielding—such as the time when patients are being ornery, obstinate, or disobedient.
Contrary to what many of us think, doctors usually don’t have control of their time or of the situation. Surgeries or procedures do not always start and end as scheduled, some patients require more attention and take up longer consulting time, and there are usually too many patients waiting to be attended to. But then again, the better doctors usually are the ones with more patients and nobody wants to go to a doctor without patients, so it’s a chicken-and-egg situation. Of course the first thing that we ask of doctors is that they be knowledgeable. Quite frankly, I’d rather have a snooty doctor who can heal quickly and efficiently than someone who is smiling and accommodating but does not seem to know what he is doing.
But in general, it’s really the system that breeds the conditions that we often rant about – particularly in government hospitals. The lack of resources and facilities create the dismal conditions that are often blamed on the medical practitioners who always have more patients than they can handle. And even in private hospitals, there are protocols that doctors have to follow; they don’t make judgment calls such as who to attend to first, on a whim. At the same time, laboratory tests and medical procedures are now considered the definitive input into a medical diagnosis so doctors are most often required to wait for test results before making any intervention. 
There are doctors who are extremely nice and helpful, of course, but I will still submit that yes, most doctors should acquire more emotional intelligence. I believe that a major part of the healing process happens within the mind and heart of the patient and an empowering doctor can do wonders to help patients heal themselves, or at least speed up the process. Medical schools, hospitals, and professional medical associations should balance technical knowledge with courses that remind doctors to be more humane and caring.

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