When The Physician Becomes The Patient: Lessons In Humanity

In medical school you learned the ins and outs of the human body, the various ways it can break down, and the best methods of repairing it. During residency you learned how to apply your newfound knowledge in the real world, and in the time since then you've gained experience and insight while healing the bodies of your patients. But for all these years of expertise, a physician knows that no one can ever truly master the human body - not even those who have dedicated their entire life to treating it.

Earlier this year Cerner CEO Neal Patterson announced his recent diagnosis of soft tissue cancer and his plans to begin immediate treatment. Patterson assured his executives that his diagnosis is curable and that he plans to remain involved with the business as it continues its day-to-day operations. As a prominent figure in an industry centered on healing the human body, Patterson's announcement comes as a stark reminder that despite the industrialization of healthcare, medicine has a very human face. From healthcare provider to patient, we are all people and our bodies are not fallible.

The physician in a white lab coat holding an authoritative clipboard today could easily become the bedridden patient in a open-backed hospital gown tomorrow. The transition from caretaker to patient is marked by a striking loss of control for one who is used to being in control of medical situations. It is always unsettling to feel like your body has betrayed you, and the experience of becoming a patient can be particularly eye-opening for someone whose own career has been devoted to healing the bodies of others.

When a physician becomes a patient, it removes the barriers between healthcare provider and healthcare receiver. Many physicians who have been through this transition have come to personally realize the importance of compassionate care. They are able to approach medical situations from the perspective of a patient as well as that of a licensed practicing physician. They are able to better relate to their patients and level with them as someone who really does know what they are going through. Effective patient care is the crux of a physician's work, and having spent time as a patient helps these physicians understand their role from a different point of view. Dr. Kevin Campbell even advocates that "time spent as a patient should be part of medical education."

Medicine may be a business, but doctors are more than just cogs in an industrial healthcare machine with patients heading down an assembly line for repair. Healthcare is about people helping people - no matter who's wearing the white coat.


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