Last week I got really sick and somehow ended up in the emergency department of Lewis-Gale, waiting to be told if what I had was simply a really bad virus, or something worse. I have not made many trips to the ED in my lifetime, but of all of my experiences, this was by far the worst. I am not trying to speak out against Lewis-Gale personally, but I found that the ED did not seem adequately prepared for the traffic they were receiving that day. I sat for almost 3 hours in the waiting room before I was taken to a room and was able to lay down. Of course, I listed off my symptoms, allergies, etc. to help the nurses and doctors who would be helping me, and was left for another hour before I saw a doctor. He was a resident, very kind, but had clearly not read my chart as I had to list off all of my symptoms yet again and explain how I was feeling. He told me we would have to wait until my tests came back in about 30 minutes-1 hour and left. An hour and a half later, the charge doctor came in and I had to list off my symptoms again and he told me that my results looked fine and that I simply needed to take a lot of fluids and sleep to feel better. Almost another hour later, the resident came back and told me the same thing. In all, I was there for about 6 hours and probably listed off my symptoms six times. Everyone I met was kind, but no one spent more than about 3 minutes in my room. It is very understandable that this could happen in an ED, but I hardly had time to request a trip to the restroom before the nurse or doctor would leave.
This, in context with the article that we read last week by Sonia Henry, was difficult for me to witness. Seeing doctors lacking empathy towards your situation is the fear of many patients, yet the way that doctors are trained hardens them towards this life. My fears are in the way that doctors go about making decisions about patient healthcare when they lack this empathy. It is abundantly clear that this is the reason that prescription medications are over-prescribed and patients are only treated for symptoms: doctors simply do not/are not able to take the time to spend with patients to understand their situation.
My other perspective comes from the fact that my husband is in the process of applying for medical school. Being with me in the ED, he was intrigued by all of the action in the department, but was also frustrated by how little time the doctors were spending with me. He has made it clear that this is not the kind of doctor that he wants to be, but I wonder if that is even possible. I worry that going through the pressures and stresses of medical school, as well as being exposed to so many difficult situations will harden him and turn him into an unempathetic doctor, just like those that we met in the ED and like Sonia Henry.
From an ethical standpoint, I think that it is imperative upon educators to begin curbing this unfortunate outcome of their medical teachings. There is not a lot that is scarier than a doctor lacking empathy when you or your loved one’s lives are on the line, and as people devoted to serving others, it is their prerogative to obtain a balance between distance and empathy. This article from Berkeley cites a survey stating that only 53% of patients thought that their doctors showed them care and empathy. Having the emotional capacity to show patients that they care is also associated with higher work satisfaction and the ability to care for patients. I hope that academic institutions are choosing to teach doctors these principles in addition to their medical knowledge in order to cultivate a better environment for both doctors and patients to be in.
Do you have any similar experiences of seeing a doctor lacking empathy? What ethical questions do you think this brings up?
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