By Reem Gaafar
I have been a doctor for almost 9 years. For about two thirds of that period I worked as an ER physician in a busy tertiary hospital in the Gulf (Oman, specifically) and for a few months in Sudan, while the other third was spent in the Sudanese civil health sector as a researcher and trainer in Public Health. Throughout this period I have had a look at 2 different healthcare systems from 2 different sides: a doctor, and the attendant of a sick relative – and I can tell you straight up that I very much prefer being in the former situation than in the latter.
Being a patient, or the attendant of a patient, sucks big time. It’s not fun at all. Although this is something that should be common knowledge, apparently it’s not so common. And the people who know the least about this are doctors. As doctors, we are ‘taught’ about ethics and treating patients with dignity, ensuring confidentiality, respecting their privacy, and what should be the most obvious of all: reducing their pain, stress and discomfort. However, it seems that despite all the advances made in medicine, these ideas haven’t advanced at all. And despite their being the core of medical practice, i.e. technically the doctor’s job is to reduce a patient’s pain, stress and discomfort; they seem to be the last thing on a doctor’s mind when dealing with patients.
Let’s not get all up in arms over this. All over the world doctors are overworked and underpaid, and pretty much unappreciated, yes I know. Being a doctor myself, I know. And I’m not talking about big-shot consultants with their private practices and fancy cars and their conference talks. I’m talking about the vast majority of the medical field, doctors AND nurses, who are the people in contact with patients the most. Who put a human face to the profession. The people who spend 22 out of 24 hours of their day with strangers instead of their own families, standing up and running around instead of sitting home and helping their kids with their homework, and who have no savings for themselves or their families because they have to spend all they have on exams and studies and books. Those people who come home after a long and tiresome day of saving lives and fixing broken bones and stitching severed tongues back on.
Yes, you are all heroes. But none of that amounts to anything if, throughout all this, you treat your patients and their families like garbage. It is not an act of charity or goodness from you to explain to your patient what exactly is going on with them, in as simple a language as they can understand and repeated as many times as needed. It is not out of the kindness of your heart to sit down, eye to eye, with a little kid and ask for their permission to look at their throat. And no, you won’t be voted doctor of the year if you wipe that look of irritation and disgust off your face when your patient’s daughter complains to you that her father has been lying on a couch for the past 40 minutes in severe pain waiting for someone, anyone, to come and see what is wrong with him and give him a painkiller. Newsflash, my dears: it’s your JOB.
It’s your job to tell your patient and their families what’s wrong with them. This actually includes explaining and taking their permission for whatever treatment you plan on giving them. You are not God; it is not your ‘right’ or your ‘authority’ to do anything to anyone, without their knowledge or consent. It’s your job to ease a patient’s pain even if you don’t think whatever is wrong with them is that bad anyway. What is it to you? How do you decide what is painful and what isn’t? And, even worse, what has age or (assumed) proximity of death got to do with a patient’s entitlement to being pain-free? This is something I can never understand. Why old and terminally ill patients are discarded and denied proper care ‘because they’re dying anyway’. It’s your job to cover a patient properly when and after examining them. It’s your job to respect someone older than you and talk to them properly. It’s your job to not talk about patients in the hallway, elevator, cafeteria, shopping mall or anywhere else other than behind the closed doors of your office. You’re not doing them a favour by respecting their privacy. And it is not an act of generosity on your behalf to follow up their conditions and make sure they’re getting everything they should be on a daily basis, if not more frequently.
Being in the medical field is a huge responsibility. It’s not just people’s lives that are literally in your hands. It’s not just their futures and their families’ livelihood that you could obliterate with a wrong move or a misunderstood instruction. You could perform the most complicated surgery and spend half your career on saving one patient from a sure death/paralysis/whatever. But none of that would matter if throughout your heroic treatment you talked down to them and insulted their family, refused to spend a few minutes a day to update them on their condition, and roughly pushed away their concerns and questions and worries.
Being a patient, or the attendant of a patient, is a horrible thing. You are scared, in pain, worried about yourself and your family’s future, and worst of all you are at the mercy of someone else – someone who obviously couldn’t care less about you. Most of the time, you have no idea what is wrong and how to fix it. And even if you do, you have to wait for someone else to fix it for you. Almost always, you will be paying through your teeth to get this thing fixed. Many times, you won’t have this money in the first place and getting it is an added worry. And above all this, you have to wait forever to be seen, the nurses are rude to you if they even acknowledge your presence in the first place, the doctor treats you like you’ve inconsiderately intruded on their private nap, and the system acts like it is punishing you for daring to get sick in the first place.
My dear fellow health professionals, for the love of God, be kind. Trust me, it’s not that difficult. Just try to imagine yourself or your family in this patient’s place. Would you like to be treated that way? I’m pretty sure you would not. Anyone who has spent a day as a patient or attendant can tell you that it was the worst day of their lives, even if the staff was nice to them. Just because your seniors act this way doesn’t make it right. Just because the system doesn’t hold you accountable for it, doesn’t mean you’ll get away with it later. A cruel word and rude treatment cuts extra deep when combined with illness. It stays with a person for a long time, even if they walked away alive and physically well.
They don’t call it a humane profession for nothing. It’s because you are expected to be humane and treat people humanely as well.