The Two-Way Patient-Doctor Relationship and Physician Resilience

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Johnny Tenegra, MD

So much of 21st century medicine can seem dehumanizing. Whether it is handling prior authorizations by insurances, signing hundreds of orders from pharmacies, or even spending hours in front of a computer screen clicking checkboxes on your electronic medical records, I think to myself that this is not why I entered medicine. As much as every day seems to come to routine, we can’t forget about the memorable moments that come with those special doctor-patient relationship encounters. I spent some time reflecting on my work in academic medicine and realized there have been many times that my patients have helped me be resilient.

Sometimes my patients have great suggestions. I had just finished precepting my last patient, but the clinic was supposed to be finished a half hour ago. I had had a busy afternoon, multitasking, handling phone messages, nursing issues, and even interviewing a resident applicant when I received a message about a patient needing some lab results (thank goodness they were normal!), and I had to call her with a message. I apologized that it was a busy week and for the length of time it took to respond to her, and she detected that I was tired. Realizing it was a late night, my patient then said, “Go home and get some dinner with your wife. I’ll be okay.”

Sometimes my patients are my coaches. Several months later, a couple of my patients noted I was running behind, and I sat down to thank them for being patient with me that day. They told me that I was a sweetheart for not making them feel rushed and that they appreciated my listening to their thoughts and suggestions. Feeling a boost of enthusiasm to get through the rest of my clinic, I gave them a couple hugs for the extra pat on the back.

Sometimes my patients just remind me that I am valued.  Every several months, I’ll get a call on my landline from one of my nurses, with a rather confused tone. However, when the nurse mentions the patient’s name, I recall exactly who it is. On the phone would be one my first patients during residency. Before I finished my training, these patients had moved away, but continued to call, just to give me updates on how they were doing. When they had learned from our residency’s website that I had gone into a faculty position, they expressed their sincere congratulations and appreciated the care I had given them. It is always great to hear from them, especially after a long week.

Yes, it is easy to get into the fast rhythm of 21st century medicine, but it is in those family doctor-style relationships that one can find the joy of what we all came into medicine for. To me, the doctor-patient relationship has been portrayed as the doctor serving the patient, but the relationship is really a two-way street. If our patients detect our genuine touch and care, then some of them will be on the lookout for our own resiliency and well-being. These are the relationships in which the quality of both of our lives benefit, and they remind me that I am glad I entered family medicine.

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