Nancy Keene’s daughter already knew plenty about doctors and medicine by the tender age of 6. She had been treated for leukemia for more than two years and now she was going to have an operation. But she became very upset when the anesthesiologist started to talk to her.
Once he realized the cause of the child’s reaction, explained by Keene as a big fear of the needle that comes with anesthesia, the doctor said he had a plan. Instead of a needle, she could get anesthesia by wearing a mask. She could even pick out its flavor — grape or bubblegum.
Further, when it came time to administer the anesthesia, the doctor told the little girl a story until she was in a deep sleep. Keene was so impressed with his care, she sent the doctor a thank you note; a couple of years later, she learned that he still had it.
“He had picked up on her fear and turned it into a beautiful thing,” said Keene, who lives in Bellingham, Wash. “And this happened in a large children’s hospital. We had never met the doctor before.”
When the human element is injected into the medical experience, both sides benefit, said Keene, who became a medical writer and lecturer in the course of dealing with her daughter’s illness. Keene also is the author of “Working With Your Doctor,” (O’Reilly, 1998, $15.95).
But extra attention from the doctor and grateful thank yous from the patient are often blocked by attitudes that work against those gestures. “I don’t think people even recognize how adversarial doctor-patient relationships have become,” Keene said.
Of course, not everyone’s concerns can be removed with a sweet-smelling solution and a story well-told. And not every doctor has the time or inclination to go the extra mile to put a patient at ease. Patients may remain childlike in their reluctance to express concerns and doctors may seem the paragon of impatience as they answer questions brusquely.
Still, when it comes to developing a relationship with your doctor, working at having a partnership is a lot better for your health than being a silent stranger or an emotional adversary.
It’s nothing new, really. “In medicine, we have always wanted close relationships with patients,” said Dr. Kenneth M. Ludmerer, professor of medicine at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Mo. “The concept of a good relationship and an involved patient is part of the ethic of the profession and is a reiteration of traditional values.”
Yet that relationship is being sorely tried these days, said Ludmerer, who is the author of a book on American medical education in the 20th century, called “A Time to Heal” (Oxford, 1999, $29.95).
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