A few months ago, I was given the opportunity to go to a diabetes clinic. This clinic provided free blood pressure, blood glucose tests, foot examinations and counseling. I, as a student doctor, was able to do these under the supervision of a podiatrist. It was a spectacular moment for me to experience real encounters with patients and to learn under a doctor with expertise in podiatry. So, I stood close by and observed. He was thorough and talked through the examinations. I was learning a lot and making connections that I was not able to make before in the classroom setting. He was great at what he did.
With all this, I turned my attention to the patient; Ms. G, who sat with her foot exposed while the students and the doctor surrounded her and spoke about her without actually talking to her. I could see that she was uncomfortable. Even more so when the doctor said to us that she may have to lose the leg. I could see a tear trickle down her cheek. She reminded me of my mother in both age and health status. This was uncanny. I felt for her as I would feel for my mother. As the doctor went on quizzing us on the anatomy of the feet, I met eyes with Ms. G and whispered, "You're okay".
I am only a second-year medical student with little experience with patients or doctors. Yet, I am confused. There is a contradiction to what I have been learning in school to what I have experienced in the clinic. They teach us about the bio-psychosocial model and patient-centered medicine. That is, whenever we treat a patient we have to consider beyond their illness and in addition, make them the center of all encounters. This patient was not her diabetes. She was an individual with emotions that we needed to recognize and address. She needed reassurance that we were there to help her and be there for her; that she was not alone.
So, I asked myself, "What type of doctor do I want to be? Is empathy as important as competence?"
I would say yes, because there is no curing a patient holistically if only their physical wound is healed but they are still broken inside.
Now, as I move onward in my journey in medicine, I will remember Ms. G and the words of this doctor: "Treat each patient like your mother," with respect. I will not only strive beyond the competence my white coat requires but also to treat all patients with the dignity they deserve.