Lessons from the other end of the stethoscope

My wife had to undergo a minor outpatient surgical procedure in a nearby medical center. Their system was efficient and the people we dealt with friendly and helpful, from parking and access, through signage, registration, medical intake, explanations of the process, keeping me informed of her status, post-procedure monitoring and the discharge process. It was after the discharge and while we were packing up our things and getting ready to leave that we had the most extraordinary experience.

The anesthesiologist stopped by to chat. He was a tall fellow whose comforting mixture of seriousness and levity we had noted earlier in the morning, and who the nurses said was ‘always like that.’ He asked my wife: “How did I do?” Clearly surprise by the question, she hesitated a bit and then said that she hadn’t felt a thing and woke up feeling fine, so he must have done great. And then came the question we still talk about:

“It’s always nice to hear that, but that’s just my job. Is there anything I could have done or said differently to make today’s events easier or better for either of you?”

My wife’s reply was to say: “No, other than magic so I didn’t have to be here.”  My unvoiced thought was to ask him, in some disbelief, was he really a physician?

How many of you have ever been asked that question? How many of you have ever been asked that question in a medical setting? A form tucked into your discharge papers or sent to you with your statement does not count. I’m talking about a face-to-face interaction with a person. My experience is that it happens very rarely and is less and less likely as one climbs the power and prestige ladder. I’ve been asked that by the desk clerk when checking out, but never by the hotel manager. It is a common question from the waitstaff, but it is quite special when the chef comes out during the meal to check on the quality of his work. 

For months, we told everyone we knew about this experience. It’s impact dwarfed everything else that we experienced that morning. I shared it with the administration at the hospital where I work, and with my office colleagues. And I have taken pains to link to Maine Medical Center in this post, giving credit where credit is due. The biggest impact, I think, is on my interactions with my own patients. I try to find an opportunity to ask this question about a current or recent interaction with at least one patient every day. It has become a habit, strongly reinforced by an expression of surprise and appreciation on the face of patients, an expression I recognize from having been on the other side of the stethescope.



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