He wasn’t the doctor you normally see. It really didn’t matter, though. Choice of physician wasn’t an issue in the ER, but pain and fear definitely were. You didn’t care who you saw right then.
When it was over and you were finally home safe, you realized something: You saw the doctor for about three minutes. He was caring, but cursory; brief, and very businesslike. And in the new book “What Doctors Feel” by Danielle Ofri, MD, you’ll get a glimpse of what might’ve gone through his head that night.
For decades, we’ve been conditioned to believe that doctors are supposed to keep an emotional distance from their patients. We expect a certain detachment and formality, but we also expect compassion. Is this a contradiction in demand?
Ofri says no. Though remaining businesslike may often be essential, the physician-patient interaction “is still primarily a human one. No matter how aloof the doctor or sick the patient, we still connect on a one-to-one basis.”
We shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, to note that doctors are mortals who sometimes “fall short on empathy” when an illness doesn’t make sense or a wound isn’t obvious, or when patients don’t follow advice, display entitlement, or steadfastly maintain bad habits. In those cases, frustration rises and remaining empathetic is “challenging,” Ofri says. But as a young medical student, Ofri learned from “an act of compassion” that finding empathy is possible, as well as essential.
Doctors fear harming their patients, missing something important, making mistakes. They become overwhelmed by neediness and illness, and by reams and reams of paperwork necessary in today’s medical world. They can succumb to the kinds of maladies and addictions they see every day; they can be stubborn in their decisions;they momentarily forget things; and they surely experience burn-out.