An Open Letter To The Busy Doctor

Hi there, Doctor.

I know you are tired. I know you work long hours and you don’t have enough time to get all the things done you need to. There is so much expected of you every day.

You are expected not only to be a brilliant scientist who knows every body system down to the cellular level but you are also expected to have highly tuned interpersonal skills and plenty of time for each patient.

Some of you are additionally expected to be brilliantly talented surgeons, tactical experts who isolate and extract chaos from even the most secreted regions of the body.

During the long years of your training, your body and mind were taxed and depleted. You were asked to keep yourself awake and primed for higher level thought and strategic judgment calls all hours of the day and night, while denying your own body its basic needs (sleep, food, water, exercise). You pushed and gave and accomplished so much. It wasn’t really fair or humane. But somehow you did it. And now you are the doctor—a respected and admired title to hold.

A title that carries incredible responsibility and expectation.

Your day is full of literal life and death decisions. Your average Tuesday may be helping your long term patient get set up with hospice, followed by a 4 hour surgery that is incredibly technically challenging. Then you finish your day up with a clinic full of patients with whom you are scheduled 15 minutes each -- maybe 20 (if you are lucky) -- to sit and talk with, assess, diagnose, strategize, and treat each of them.

It is not easy, I know.

I see you, Doctor, working your butt off. I know you are tired.

Some of you, as overworked and taxed as you are, somehow still possess a natural grace in handling this responsibility that both inspires and astonishes me. Some of you fully comprehend that amidst all this expectation and responsibility, at the heart of each patient you come into contact with, there is one universal truth: you are taking care of humans at their most vulnerable.

You see that a person is not the sum of her body parts, but that each body part is part of a bigger being.

Unfortunately, Doctor, some of you abuse your power. Sometimes you are dismissive and disrespectful. Sometimes you don’t sit down when you enter a patient’s room because you are in too much of a hurry and you don’t want to hear what your patient has to say. Sometimes you don’t look at them when they are talking to you. At times you speak without thinking or create mistrust and pain by your inability to see beyond yourself and what you have to deal with at this moment.

And sometimes you don’t understand or don’t care that one interaction can affect a patient for the rest of her life.

I invite you to consider that this responsibility you hold to help and witness people in their sickness and on their journey back to health is an honor and a privilege. We all know you are not god (you know that, too, right?)  but we also know that you have knowledge, expertise and skills that make you a valuable and needed person in the lives of many.

To put it simply, Doctor: What you do matters. A whole lot. This can be your biggest gift or your kryptonite.

The way you orient yourself toward this responsibility holds much possibility for healing and much possibility for unimaginable hurt.

Patients are paying attention. They are listening, they are watching. What you say -- and what you don’t say -- has lasting impact. One of my friends has not gone back to the doctor after 9 years because of a hurtful and unkind appointment with a doctor who treated her with disregard and disrespect. That 15 minutes visit adds up to a lifetime for some of us, when it comes to our relationship with healthcare.

That 15 minute appointment in your world may be Mr. Hypertension or Mrs. Too Fat and Lazy, or Kid Who Stuck A Button In Their Ear. But to each of them, it is a vulnerable time and a chance to ask for and get the help they need. They were brave by even showing up in the first place.

And now you have an opportunity -- and I posit, a responsibility -- to meet them with empathy and presence.

When you signed up for this work, you didn’t just sign up for status and money, or science and numbers. You also signed up to work with people in their most raw and vulnerable times. Complex, messy, sensitive, brilliantly lovable, scared, strong humans.

Humans who are asking you for your expertise.

I know it is a lot. I know sometimes you feel burned out. But that is no excuse for bad behavior. It is not ok to demean, diminish, or dismiss someone who has entrusted you with their care. It is your responsibility to be willing to step outside of your busy world and be present with another’s, if even for a moment.

That’s the place where empathy can enter . . . and that is healing healthcare at its best.

You can throw pills at problems all day long, but unless you are willing to show up, human to human, often those pills don’t mean a damn thing. Sometimes you might even realize that your patient doesn’t need a pill -- she just needs to be heard.

Sometimes the chemistry that shifts inside a body as a result of a pill is no match for the chemistry that shifts inside a body when it--and the soul that it houses--are seen.

Empathy means healing. Connecting means being seen. Healing means understanding that true health is so much more than a perfect panel of lab results.

I invite you to create partnerships with your patients -- where you include their goals and wishes and create a plan together for their optimal health.

I invite you to listen -- to signal that you care -- with your body language and your words. Offering presence with each one during the time you do have with them is one of the biggest gifts you can offer.

When you step into our lives, we want to know you are safe for us to be around as our whole selves. So please, be that safe person we need you to be. Let your gifts fully be expressed. And be willing to learn about us.

We need you to be present to us and with us. As we take responsibility for our part in our own healing, it means so much to have you by our side.

Thank you for all that you do,

Niki