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Secrets to Their Care: The Art of Oncology

One of my best friends had a bad outcome from surgery.  A devastating complication that left her emotionally and physically scarred.  Irreversibly.  Once she accepted the outcome, she then became angry.  Not only had the technical skills been far below her expectations, but also the surgeon handled the complication by telling her that there “…was nothing else to do. Accept it.”  That was the wrong thing to say.  Though considered brilliant by his peers, he lacked the empathy to truly be a great surgeon.

My friend found comfort in reading James Dody’s book Into the Magic Shop.  In this autobiography, the neurosurgeon describes his path to understanding his own callousness and lack of compassion and empathy, and the metamorphosis he undergoes in order to save himself.

Often when there are less than optimal outcomes, physicians find themselves unable to find the words to communicate their feelings about failing the patient’s hopes of a cure or a good result, however that is determined.  Over the past several decades, physicians have not been trained on how to communicate. That was left for nurses.

I consider myself a caring and compassionate physician, largely because of the way I was raised and the example I had in my father, a very empathetic and communicative doctor, but I know that there are personality types that haven’t learned that, and don’t seem to have it hardwired. They need some extra coaching on the art of dealing with and relating to patients on a human level.

I found the series of essays published by ASCO (American Society of Clinical Oncologists), called The Art of Oncology: Compassionate Responses to the Daily Struggles of People Living with Cancer to be a promising start. The two-volume set, available on Amazon in book and podcast form, is meant to be shared among physicians and their patients so that we call can all have a better understanding of the journeys taken by healers and patients.

As the pressures of managed care grow and physicians and nurses have less time with each patient, we all need to be better communicators. As my father told me years ago, “sit down by the patients’ bedside and listen to their history. It holds the secrets to their care.”

There is a growing body of evidence that doctors who show empathy have patients with healthier outcomes. As a doctor who has many times been a patient, and now as the founder of a company that provides products that help patients, I am encouraged by the fact that physicians are starting to realize the effect that communication and compassion have on patient experience and recovery.

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