It seems every time I turn around, I meet another person who had a deeply troubling experience with doctors who failed to listen, failed to believe, and consequently failed to heal.
The healthcare system is under a lot of pressure, whether from changes to how care is insured, to pay for performance guidelines, to increasingly regulations associated with patient privacy and safety, to over-crowded and understaffed emergency rooms, clinics and hospitals.
While it may seem to be more efficient to spend less time listening to patients, and easier to “write off” their own feelings about what may be going wrong with their body, it may ultimately reduce time to listen carefully and allow the patient to guide the diagnosis.
My own family members have recently been ignored when we articulate our symptoms, our concerns, our own ideas of what may be going on – given our increasing knowledge through access to more information, our personal knowledge of family genetics and, our sense of how we are living and what we may be exposed to in the environment and awareness of context and change on our health, one would think physicians would be aware of the value of our information and instincts.
Of course, many physicians are great listeners and healers as a result.
Those who ignore patients and fail to trust them can cause short-term and long-term harm.
In my family’s case, we had to research new specialists knowing we were right – and we were in the end, 100% correct. The cost for us? Delays in getting the right treatment, and emotional stress and frustration for months, even years, as certain doctors simply refused to believe what we shared.
A very successful physician we know diagnosed herself with a bacterial infection which started in her sinuses, and eventually moved into her heart. For months, she went to different doctors and specialists, explained her symptoms, shared her diagnosis and was literally ignored, time after time.
“There is nothing wrong with you,” multiple doctors said, “it is all in your head.”
Just last week, when she could no longer breathe, exercise, think or work, she broke down in front of a colleague, who referred her immediately to a nearby hospital and a particularly great doctor who saw her and immediately admitted her for three days of intensive antibiotic treatments through an IV. This doctor may have saved her heart and life – and it all started with listening – and believing.
One couple here in NYC started a foundation designed to save babies lives after their 8-day old daughter was misdiagnosed after several emergency room visits, by doctors and nurses who told the young mother her child only had a common cold.
One ER doctor even said: “Is this your first child?” When the mother answered “yes” the doctor said, “You’re overreacting.”
They sent the mother and her daughter home that evening, and in the morning, their daughter passed away.
The actual diagnosis?
A viral infection.
There is nothing more devastating than losing a child, and nothing more cruel than dismissing a mother.
This family has now raised tens of millions of dollars to bring neo-natal training, equipment, programs and more to dozens of hospitals in the US and abroad, including several of the largest children’s hospitals in the world.
Modern medicine’s true healing potential can only be achieved when medical professionals have the time and capacity to truly listen to patients, hear their stories, and learn not only what’s the matter with them but also what matters to them.
Hurried care incurs hidden costs and while it may save money in the short term, it wastes money over time and renders real damage to individuals and families.
Listening closely to patients communicates respect and builds trust. Collaboration delivers a shared plan that patients will be more likely to commit to. Reduction of errors and the ability to remain agile and respectful in the process of providing care improves outcomes.
Medical decision making done in concert with patients can be incredibly efficient, and meaningfully authentic.
There are many solutions to ensuring physicians have time to spend listening, including improving systems that reduce paperwork, delegating lower-level tasks to non-physician team members, scheduling appointments more efficiently, and using new secure messaging capabilities that work for the “mobile generation.”
Listening – and believing – may seem elusive, but in fact it is very achievable an it is what patients wish for.