© Dr. Rajas Deshpande
“The doctor wasn’t even replying. He didn’t answer my questions” the patient, an angry lady, told me about one of my colleagues. The patient’s husband sat besides her, expressionless.
I reviewed her case in detail. She had had varying complaints for over four years, mostly severe pain at various points on her body. When a patient has symptoms (complaints) grossly disproportionate to the signs (doctor’s findings), there always is a suspicion of ‘exaggeration’ or ‘lying’. This can happen involuntarily due to stress, depression or anxiety, or voluntarily usually for seeking attention. She had seen many specialists, and had received strong doses of almost all types of pain killers and other pain control medicines, still her response after every course was ‘zero relief’. That was definitely suspicious. I looked at her husband. He appeared tired and aloof, reluctant to participate in any discussion. I had to make him talk.
“Is she stressed? Have you noticed any change in her personality?” I asked them the question that usually opens the dreaded can of worms.
“I am fed up, doctor” said the husband, “She needs continuous attention. Since our marriage four years ago there’s never been a month when we did not visit a hospital. All doctors tell her to go to a psychiatrist, but she refuses. The moment I return from office she starts complaining about her health. I don’t know what to do now, I feel I am better out of my own home” he avoided looking at her.© Dr. Rajas Deshpande.
His wife started crying, and in a shrill voice, shouted at me “Why are you speaking with him, doc? I am your patient, speak to me. No one believes me. I am suffering so much!”
I assured her that I was going to help her sort out the issue. Once she calmed down, I was able to explain to her the way stress affects human mind and body, and that it was possible to get well soon. I told her that being stressed was not a “psychiatric illness” but an overworked, burdened state of mind that needs attention, and that it can often be cured by speaking with the right person. She asked me many questions. As a special case, I made an effort to reply to each one of them, even the irrelevant ones, sometimes repeatedly. She agreed to visit an excellent counsellor colleague of mine. She drastically improved in a month after the counsellor worked upon her. However, she came back with new complaints within two months. She visited me twice more, and each time cried a lot, then when I pacified her, asked the same long list of questions mixed with new ones.
My sympathy and compassion started waning. I have promised myself never to be rude to any patient ever, and I religiously follow that. Yet my patience was wavering now.
The more compassionate, patient, sympathetic a doctor becomes towards the patient and their family, the more it is taken for granted and misused. The doctor is then expected to be an unending source of “psychological support”, mentoring and motivating, and a punching bag or a cry-to teddy bear. While in a healthy doctor-patient relationship this compassionate attitude is natural and welcome, many doctors do not know when it starts growing upon them and stressing them out. It is not easy to listen to a continuous flow of medical symptomatology especially wrapped in negative emotions. While positive outcomes do bring back life into a doctor’s motivation to do better and more, this expectation to be a listener of all sorrows until the storyteller is satisfied is unnatural and impractical. It tells upon the doctor’s health. This is now happening in almost all specialties, and wise doctors are learning to separate patients into “whimpering, chronically-dissatisfied-with-everything storytellers” versus patients with genuine medical, surgical and psychiatric issues. © Dr. Rajas Deshpande.
To concentrate upon what can be corrected, to treat what is possible should be the right priority, and here’s where a doctor’s compassion, sympathy and patience are best employed. To expect a doctor to resolve issues like ‘Swabhav’ (inherent nature) of a human being is wrong. A doctor also cannot solve the root causes of stress like poverty, unemployment, interpersonal incompatibility, overambitious, over-expectant personality or attention seeking. Many patients and families expect the doctor to resolve ‘every minor issue’ related to ageing, refusing to accept that resuming complete normalcy of health is impossible after a certain age, especially with some medical conditions. Doctors can guide patients, but cannot accompany the patient and family to fine tune every minor issue.© Dr. Rajas Deshpande.
Few paranoid, suspicious, accusative, aggressive patients and the types mentioned above have now made it necessary for the doctor to be extremely aware and alert, cautious, and to some extent emotionally aloof from the patient at least in the initial phase. Every word has to be spoken with caution. This “Robotic Doctor” or “Robodoc” is actually becoming a sad reality in the Western world where every medical consultation is considered a potential chance of litigation. A careful doctor avoids getting trapped into emotional exploitation. While this may upset some patients, much of the educated class is still happy with a proper professional consultation, diagnosis and treatment rather than only a compassionate sweet talk. Given the Indian scenario where patients are driven emotionally rather than scientifically especially in the illiterate and financially challenged echelons, a doctor needs to be better equipped for avoiding misuse of his / her compassion and sympathy, as it also converts readily into a permanent source of rewardless stress. This is unhealthy for doctors.
This is one reason ‘Robodocs’ are on a rise. A sad truth about an essential evolution in the medical profession across the world. The only thing that can change this is individualising patient care.
© Dr. Rajas Deshpande
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