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Physicians and the art of time bending

Physicians can't control outcomes, but they can always make their patients feel heard. Despite daily time pressures, patients should always be center stage, and our jobs as physicians is to translate the complexities, listen, counsel, and be there for them during the most intense moments of their lives.

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How doctors provide quality care with limited time

About a year ago, there was a great commercial that depicted the slowing of time as a free-falling, but worry-free, James Franco uses his smartphone to chart a safe landing on the billowy awning of a restaurant dozens of stories below.  There probably isn’t a single person who hasn’t, at one point or another, wished she or he could control time in order to navigate a better outcome.  And doctors may be at the top of that long list.

The psychology of care and the perception of time

Time is an interesting construct, particularly when considered in the context of intense situations.  For a patient waiting for test results, the second hand on her watch may seem to stop ticking, while for another patient, eager to review a list of questions about his condition, the visit can seem over in the blink of an eye.  As physicians, the last thing we want is for our patients to feel time stop as their anxiety rises, or a patient to feel rushed and that his questions weren’t answered as he seeks to understand his health.  

We swear an oath to protect our patients, to cause no harm.  So when the bureaucracy of the healthcare system gets in the way and places constraints on our time with patients, our instinct is to try and shield them from feeling any downstream effect from these issues.

It has become an exercise in time-bending, of sorts, a psychology of better patient care.  Successful physicians know that there are certain actions that convey a deeper sense of connectivity between him and his patient.  Fully walking into the room, for instance, as opposed to standing in or near the doorway has a profound effect on the patient’s perception of time.  It comes down to all of those seemingly little nuances in behavior—a hand touch, taking a seat, looking directing at the person— that make the biggest impact.  We can’t promise outcomes, but we can always treat each person with the respect, care, and compassion he and she deserves.

Physicians are the Rosetta Stone for patients

Everyone has a different ability to absorb and understand information, and when it comes to medical and health concerns, doctors are the entrusted translators: taking complex clinical knowledge and explaining it in ways that are meaningful to their patients.  A new mother is processing information at much different rate than a son who is making end-of-life care decisions for his terminally ill father.  It is our job to be there, as much as needed, whenever we are needed.  We sift through all the clinical data, pull out the relevant numbers, and explain what they mean, and talk through different options— whether it is pre-natal vitamins or adjusting medications to help manage break-through pain. 

It’s no secret that there is often fear of the unknown, but it’s different when that unknown is occurring inside your own body.  We live our lives being certain of one constant: ourselves, and when the human body betrays us with an abnormality or illness, we feel cheated and scared.  No one understands this more than those who have dedicated their lives to shepherding people through these intense times.  Who strive to help others live their lives with as much quality and dignity as possible, whether the situation is beautiful or challenging.

It is not an easy job to watch others go through these times.  It is hard to not always have all the answers.  There are limits to knowledge, after all.  But no one person is as another, so everything is individualistic, it’s about making subtle adjustments and tweaks in approaches, but mostly, it is about monitoring, about talking over what is happening, and making informed decisions together.  The patient should always be center stage, our jobs as physicians is to translate the complexities, listen, counsel, and be there.

There is a famous quote by Plato: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”  When you’re falling behind in your packed schedule, with a list of acute patients who need to be seen by the end of the day, remember, you may not be able to change regulations, and you can’t always control outcomes, but you do have the ability to bend time.

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