Beyond The White Coat: Seeing The ER From A Patient’s Perspective

Ryan H. Fitzgerald DPM

I recently had the opportunity to spend a long, anxiety-ridden day waiting in the emergency room in an unusual capacity: as the family member of a patient. As many of us, I spend a fair amount of time in the emergency room. However, I have learned that time spent in a professional capacity has a very different feel than time spent watching the clock, waiting for the nurse, the physician and the eventual “news.”

As I sat there waiting, I had ample opportunity to consider the nature of communication between healthcare providers and their patients as well as the patient’s family members. I would like to share with you some of the experience and perhaps together we can come to some better understanding of the nature and necessity of the communication — and how we can do it better.

As is likely the case with many of you, I am comfortable in hospitals. I have spent the last eight years in and out of hospitals in various roles. I have been a student, an extern, a resident and most recently, an attending physician in private practice. It was an odd experience to be sitting on the patient’s side of things, waiting for the physician to return so we could get updates, lab results, imaging studies and information on treatment options and potential courses of action.

In this particular case, after six hours of waiting, our news came — ultimately what we had most feared — presented with little fanfare or explanation. Yet even as I sat there, I found myself critiquing our physician’s delivery and the quality of the level of communication. Granted, there is no great way to deliver bad news but there are ways that each of us can improve the quality of our communication skills.

Have you ever thought about it? How well do you communicate with your patients? I must admit that this experience has forced me to critically evaluate my own interactions with patients to improve this aspect of the care that I provide. Do I explain things in a way that my patients truly understand? Do I adequately answer the questions that patients ask? Do I truly convey that I care?

It is important to ask yourself these questions as you progress through your training and beyond into your career. As with most things, competence comes with persistence and with practice. What is certain is that if you are not training to improve your communication skills, you certainly won’t get any better.

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