As A Cancer Patient, I Felt Dismissed By Doctors. As A Doctor, I Am Desperate For The System To Change
The young boy sitting nervously in front of me is visibly agitated, with his hand clenched and his neck covered in red blotches. He is grappling with the question that has haunted him since his diagnosis – "Why am I sick?" His illness has disrupted his life and he feels isolated from his peers who are pursuing their passions and dreams while he is confined to a hospital bed undergoing treatment for a chronic disease.
As a survivor of bowel cancer, I can empathize with the fear and uncertainty that comes with being diagnosed with a major illness. While battling cancer, I often found myself wondering why my doctors didn’t seem to understand my experience and the emotional toll the illness was taking on me. The lack of empathy made me feel like a passive participant in my own treatment plan.
As a future doctor and a patient advocate, I believe that empathy is a critical component in medical education that must be given the attention it deserves. Empathy cannot be learned from textbooks or lectures; it requires a personal connection with patients and an understanding of their unique experiences. Patients must be proactive partners in their own treatment, and their voices must be heard and valued in medical schools to create more compassionate doctors.
While it’s true that some doctors have become better advocates for their patients after experiencing illness themselves, this epiphany should not be a prerequisite for empathy and understanding. The medical system must do better by including more humanities subjects and opportunities for students to interact with patients, who are the ultimate teachers of empathy. Patients who have firsthand experience with illness must be empowered to share their stories and be included as genuine teachers, not just as passive recipients of care. Only then can we ensure that future doctors have the necessary skills to provide excellent care to their patients.
Medical studies have indicated that as medical students progress through their training, their ability to empathize with patients diminishes. The initial compassion that they possess as students is replaced by a negative outlook and excessive self-importance. The reasons behind this transformation are several, one of which appears to be the unsympathetic environment of some medical schools and training programs. As a consequence of this hostile environment, medical students tend to withdraw and protect themselves from superiors, inappropriate conduct, bullying, and a healthcare system that tends to view them as mere numbers in a spreadsheet rather than actual individuals.
It is not necessary for everyone to fall ill to recognize the discomfort associated with it. I may not have gone through the same ailment as my teenage patient, but I can make use of my sickness experience to motivate him to persevere.
"I am sorry that this has happened to you," I offer. I reassure him that being irritated by his situation is normal and understandable.
The patient tells me that he has never heard any doctor express such compassion to him in the past.
Although I cannot change his perception, nor do I have the words to make him feel perfectly fine about his predicament, it is unacceptable that I was the first doctor to demonstrate this level of validation.
Dr. Ben Bravery, a cancer survivor and physician, has recently published his memoir titled "The Patient Doctor" through Hachette.