A Peek Inside A Physician's Mind: How I Use Humility, Empathy & Intuition For Doctoring &
My college neurobiology professor spent the entire first lecture speaking to us about humility. It was one of those perspective shifting moments that has stayed with me ever since. I was expecting to dive into neural synapse function and neurotransmitters. To hear this scientist lecture on humility was unexpected and eye opening. The truth is, even in science, and especially neuroscience, we don’t have all of the answers. You probably see an example of this with changes in nutrition recommendations, or preventative medicine guidelines, seemingly all the time. Don’t eat eggs, eat eggs, wait…actually don’t eat eggs. More on this later, but you get the point. Science changes. It’s fluid. Scientists have theories on how neurotransmitters work, but we have to acknowledge that we can’t possibly know everything, and those theories or ideas may even be proven wrong sometimes. As a scientist, doctor, anyone really, you have to do the best that you can with the information that you have at that time, and realize…change is a constant.
In that same vein, you may have seen the meme “Don’t confuse your Google search with my Medical Degree.” Let’s face it, doctors are notorious for big egos. That is a lot of school, a lot of knowledge, and big egos are encouraged during training, in a sense. You have to have that unwavering confidence when running a code, rushing a patient to emergency surgery, or making a high risk medication choice. But, having unwavering confidence is not mutually exclusive of having humility. A lot of physicians brush off patient’s “Google searches.” But the fact is, there is a patient sitting in front of you, who knows her symptoms intimately, may have been dealing with this for years, and is probably wicked smart. In this information age, how can we expect a patient to not look up their symptoms or maybe even do a literature search? As doctors, we are here to reassure patients if their searches were on the wrong path, or to listen to ideas that we may have never learned about in school. When a patient brings in their own research, it shows me that they deeply care about their health and are ready to be an active player in their healing process. Patients, hear me, you do not need to apologize for your research, or say, “I know I shouldn’t have looked this up.” I will tell you if you should stop worrying about the scary stuff you read, or if the idea you found sounds safe, or if we need to go in a different direction all together. I learn from my patients. If we as healers are too closed minded to hear what they have to say, we might miss the piece of information that solves the puzzle. We can all practice more humility.
Empathy is one of my super powers. It has always come naturally to me. But, if I am having a bad day or bad week, it is not as easy. We all have bad times, and when in a role that you serve others, it’s good to have a plan to reignite the empathy. Here is what I do to stay authentic, even if in a rut.
#1. I developed this method in residency and I still use it. It is especially helpful on those harder days. If I am not feeling as empathetic as usual, I will think of who a patient most closely reminds me of, in my own life. If I connect that person with a loved one, I feel I am more effective as a doctor. If I am making a tough call on a medical decision, I might think “what would I do if this were my mom, dad, husband, daughter, sibling, or best friend?” Or, how would I want another doctor to treat those loved ones. I don’t need to think about that very often these days, but it was especially helpful in those tough residency days. With the state of the world right now, stress is high, so I might have used this old grounding skill on you if you saw me as a patient recently. Hopefully it made you feel cared for and heard.
#2. Another way I keep empathy in my day-to-day interaction with patients is to jot down specific details about their personal life that they share with me. This is not something that was taught in my training, but has made my relationships with patients more meaningful. I go beyond the standard questions and jot down their children’s names, or where they are going on their next trip, or that they just got a new house or puppy. These don’t really fit anywhere in the standard “History and Physical” but it only takes a few seconds, and when I see them again, it can jog my memory to our last conversation…beyond all the standard medical details. These types of personalized interactions help keep the doctor-patient relationship more real.
Intuition may sound too “woo woo” or out there to be speaking about along with patient care, but I would argue that it is one of the most important things you can develop. When something goes wrong in any area of life, do you ever look back and think, “why didn’t I listen to my gut?” There is that gut feeling that we get, which we can’t necessarily explain, but is some combination of using all of our knowledge, experience, all of our senses, and maybe even something higher trying to guide us. Hone that skill. It is invaluable.
So, intuition can steer you away from the bad stuff. But, it can also help steer you towards the good stuff. In making medical decisions, you may be surprised to learn that in addition to using my many years of schooling and ongoing education….I use my intuition. I don’t just pick at random. If there are two equal choices, I literally tap into my intuition based on what I know about the medication, the patient, past experiences, and that “gut feeling.” This is not just with medication, because if you know me, you know I like to minimize pharmaceuticals, but it could be a supplement, a treatment plan etc. I get great results, and I think my patients would agree. Honoring Humility, Empathy, and Intuition can improve doctoring, but can also improve anyone’s day to day life. Hope you enjoyed this behind-the-scenes peek inside a physician’s mind. Thanks for stopping by and have a great week!