Blog | Friday, November 2, 2018

Imagine you were treating that VIP celebrity

A few weeks ago, I was giving a day-long seminar in California on improving communication skills, optimizing the patient experience, and how this is all ultimately linked to better proven outcomes. Part of the day involved doing role plays, playing the part of doctors and patients in various difficult hypothetical scenarios. My experience of this type of group exercise is that all clinicians usually really enjoy it, when it's done in a relaxed and informal environment, and are very interested to hear feedback on their performance (better still, video the encounter and play it back to the physician, although I didn't on this occasion).

It's great to see seasoned professionals do this, and barring only a tiny minority of the more “stubborn” individuals (yes, they exist in every field!), nearly everyone is very receptive to observation and advice. Of course, anybody who is doing an exercise like this in a controlled environment, will always be on their very best behavior. Whether or not that's how they really do things in clinical practice (or have the time to do things) is another matter. But as long as anyone is simply aware of what the “ideal” interaction involves—that's a huge first step.

This actually reminds me of some advice I was given early in my career that has always stuck with me. The words of wisdom from an inspiring doctor went something like this: “Always imagine you were treating someone really famous who is your hero!”

This may sound a bit corny, or daft (sorry, a word we use a lot in England), but when you think about it, it's awesome advice. However professional we are, we all know that if we were suddenly in a position where we were faced with someone who was our celebrity idol—that sportsman, actor, author or politician (okay, I may worry about you if you pick the latter option—but you get the gist), the interaction may be quite a bit different. Would you be a bit more focused, at the top of your game, and wanting to impress? Would you spend a little more time, go the extra mile, and pull out your very best performance? Of course you would! That's the natural human thing to do, and nothing to be ashamed of. It may be a difficult thing to acknowledge, but it's true.

On many levels, this realization is an opportunity for self-reflection too. As doctors, we are professionals who pride ourselves on always being at our peak and treating everyone as best we can. Is there really any time where we are anything less? The answer is definitely yes. It's so easy for our jobs to become routine and to see the next patient as “just another name on that long list“. Slip into a mentality of cutting some “non-essential” corners and rushing things along to get one step closer to the finish line. Being a physician is frequently exhausting beyond compare, both physically and mentality. It's hard to stay consistently at the top of our game, especially in human interactions. Yet every single encounter we have is so important, something that the patient and family may have been waiting hours, days or weeks for, and will acutely remember. We therefore cannot let anything but a stellar performance come forth.

Despite all of the other challenges physicians face in today's health care environment: inefficient and clunky electronic medical records, overwhelming bureaucracy, and a financial squeeze all the way from the top. None of those factors are our patients' fault, but they frequently bear the brunt of the consequences. That doctor-patient interaction is still quite special. It's where the “magic” of medicine occurs, and also the part of our day that is truly under our control and untouchable by external factors, if we make it so.

There have been variations of the above advice I've heard over the years, including greeting any patient like you've been waiting to meet them all day. Or making them the absolute center of your world for those few minutes you are with them. Or even imagining that you are being filmed for a TV show!

However you do it, keep on imaging every patient is your VIP, doctor.

Suneel Dhand is an internal medicine physician, author and speaker. He is the founder of DocSpeak Communications and co-founder at DocsDox. He blogs at his self-titled site, where this post first appeared.