Four of them walked into the examination room: my doctor — a specialist in retina disorders — and three young people in white coats. Immediately, my doctor began to give me the results of a nearly 2-hour-long battery of tests. But as he paused for breath between sentences, I held up my hand.
“First, could I please be introduced?” I asked, my eyes moving around the semicircle of eager faces flanking my doctor. “So I don’t feel so much like a gerbil in a cage?”
“Oh,” my doctor said, “you’re not a gerbil in a cage.”
He introduced me to the medical team who might, one day, be sitting in his chair, delivering test results to me or another patient.
Health care has moved from the small-town doctor making house calls and treating the whole family into the realm of science that is often scrubbed of the human touch. This element of people-to-people interaction may seem disposable but is vital to healing hearts as well as bodies.
Medical training programs offer some degree of effective bedside manner development. One actress I know is involved in a program that simulates the clinical setting. She plays a patient suffering from a disease or disorder. The medical student goes through a full examination and tries to diagnose her ailment, all the while remaining conscious of how he or she communicates and otherwise treats the “patient.”
For all of this extra attention, there are strong forces battling against taking a more individual and, dare I say it, polite approach to health care.
With fewer doctors and more patients, medical offices are swamped. This results in hurried interactions (sometimes I’ve felt as if I’m running a mini-marathon toward appointment rooms), and precious little time for introductions and the kind of small talk that can help establish a connection.
Reliance on electronic records during an examination and beyond is another assault on personal connections. If a physician or other medical professional is more intent upon correcting typos on a computer screen, he or she is spending less time looking at the patient and getting a full picture of his or her overall state.
And then, there is the little but immensely important subject of names.
Patient privacy laws are intended to protect individuals’ sensitive health information, and that is a good thing. But do we really need to wipe away all traces of personal identity?
I would hope not.
We are more than our lab test results or a number in the waiting room queue. Names serve as a way to get to “personal” rather quickly. A conversation, even a contentious one with an insurance representative, can proceed more effectively if you know the name of the person with whom you’re speaking (especially if you need to follow up later).
Caring enough to ask the names of the front office staff and others in a doctor’s office not only encourages polite behavior, but it also comes in handy when problems arise or you need to cancel an appointment at the last minute.
There is much that is out of our control when it comes to health care trends and looming changes. But we can encourage basic practices of courtesy and kindness with each human interaction, beginning with calling and being called by name.