Mindfulness, Empathy and Doctors

Recently I’ve been dealing with a cancer scare. Getting an accurate diagnosis necessitated going to half a dozen doctors and an equal number of technicians for a variety of tests. Throughout this process I became highly aware of how each person’s ability to listen, explain, and empathize had a profound effect on me.

For instance, I went to my surgeon for a pre-op visit. He seemed distracted and annoyed that he needed to talk to me. I thought he was barely listening. Luckily there were two surgeons doing my surgery. The second doctor excused him saying, “He’s expert technically. A good bedside manner isn’t so important.” Then I learned he had said I approved a surgical procedure we’d barely discussed much less one that had been agreed to.

It was obvious to me that “bedside manner”, which sounds like an optional extra, wasn’t an accurate description of what I was longing for. I wanted a doctor who would listen to me, accurately hear what I was saying, and even step into my shoes for even a second.

I often hear, “they just don’t have time”. I’m aware of the pressures on everyone in our current healthcare system and I know time pressure is intense. Yet when I hear this, I think that what I’m suggesting isn’t fully understood.

Here’s an example from a doctor I saw later, after my surgery. At my first appointment with him, when he walked into the room, he looked me in the eye and said, “I’ve been reading your records. They’ve sent you around the block a few times, haven’t they?” I felt a huge sigh of relief. With one sentence this doctor told me he cared about me and had an inkling of what I’d been going thru. He also probably saved himself a lot of time because now he was talking to a patient who was relaxed, better able to respond to his questions and more open to hearing what he had to say.

What I’m talking about are doctors who can mindfully listen and even empathize with me. Mindfulness means the capacity to live in the present moment with a quality of attention that is curious, open and accepting. Empathy, (the ability to sense another person’s feelings and needs, to imagine what their life is like, to connect with what’s alive for them in the moment), arises from mindful presence.

In this post I illustrated why I feel it is important for healthcare practitioners to be trained in mindfulness and empathy skills. However, I don’t mean to imply that these skills aren’t important for me too, as a patient. Next week I will write about how my mindfulness practice proved invaluable for me throughout this process. (Note: my surgery turned out well and I need no further treatment.)


One Comment on “Mindfulness, Empathy and Doctors

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