The patient in snapshots

Healthcare providers perceive their patients through a series of snapshots. A primary care physician may see her patients a few times a year for twenty or thirty minutes; if the patient is lucky, he may get to spend an hour with his physician during these visits. If that patient is admitted to the hospital, a hospitalist might visit the patient daily, gaining a much briefer but more intense glimpse of the patient and any friends or family that might visit the patient during that time. A very sick patient might spend a great deal of time with multiple physicians, bouncing in and out of the hospital, back and forth between providers. But no one provider ever gets a complete picture of their patients’ lives. They see what patients present to them during their relatively brief interactions.

This, to me, is why hearing patients, families, and advocates tell their stories is so powerful. It is impossible for providers to fully understand the patient experience through the choppy filter of formal patient encounters. When patients take the floor, they suddenly become real, complete individuals with full lives.

I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to listen to patients and their families tell their stories at Telluride East. Hearing Helen Haskell talk about the tragic and preventable death of her son, Lewis Blackman, influenced me deeply. Mr. Blackman died because his providers saw him in snapshots, and because they saw only what they expected to see. Ms. Haskell perceived him as he was during his fatal hospital stay – in danger and dying – but her concerns were not enough to override the health care team’s erroneous conclusions. Through Ms. Haskell’s retelling of the story, Lewis is not simply a patient, not simply a statistic or a mistake, but a young man with hopes and aspirations. Ms. Haskell herself is a grieving mother, someone with the courage to overcome her own anger in order to share a deeply painful story in the hopes of preventing others from having to face the same tragic event.

It is humbling to realize how profoundly providers’ decisions can influence the lives of patients and their families. Most providers are well-intentioned and wish to help, not harm, the patients they care for. Yet without recognizing one’s own limits, without making an effort to engage patients and their families, without taking the time to listen to patients’ concerns, it is easy to make decisions that will actually hurt a patient. As a future physician, I aspire to be someone who listens – truly listens – to my patients, and someone who recognizes the limits of my own abilities, who seeks out help when needed.