Good Doctors Must First Be Good Human Beings
If any of you were to read my e-mails from the past few months you'd wonder about doctors and what is going on in their heads. Most of us know doctors that are exceptional human beings as well as talented scientists and healers. Most of us also know doctors that are smart researchers, but perhaps should have stayed in research and played with test tubes instead of dealing day-to-day with patients.
The average doctor, however, would likely fall between the two spectrums. Doctors are human beings who decide to go into medicine to make a living, and we hope, to help people. Our current medical system makes it hard for terrific doctors to practice medicine as they would like. I've known a couple of doctors that retired younger than planned because they didn't feel they were allowed to serve their patients' needs. They felt system is too restricting and doesn't respect the individual, whether it's the doctor or the patient.
That said, many of the comments I've lately heard were best summed up by these words from one man:
"You are filling a void that I have seen over and over in our medical establishment. When we insisted my mother-in-law's family doctor acknowledge her reduced mental state (I had been saying for a year she had Alzheimer's) he looked my father-in-law straight in the eye and said, ‘Well, naturally she has Alzheimer's. She is almost text book.' He then ushered my father-in-law out, without even a photocopied page of what to expect and do. No mention of support groups, books....nothing. And we are seeing this over and over with others we connect with. It is almost criminal."
How horribly sad that people are told point-blank that a loved one has this mind-robbing disease, and then dismissed. If this gentleman were the only one I'd heard from it would be different, but I've heard from many. The only reason (excuse?) I can think of for this callous behavior is that the doctor knows that this is devastating news, and he or she also knows that they can't say, "So here is a prescription. Have her take it for ten days and then she will be well." So they dismiss the patient and family before anyone can ask questions.
Also, the doctor is probably looking at the clock, because she or he has another patient coming in, and answering some questions brings more questions and they will run out of time. Most clinics/hospitals pay by the numbers.
What do we do about this?
If I were faced with a situation as drastic as the one noted above, I would change doctors. With all of my son's health problems, as well as my elders', I've seen the whole spectrum of doctors, and believe me, we've "fired" several. We've also had a couple of doctors that are just this side of saints.
Our local medical center, indeed our whole community, tragically lost to cancer a neuropsychologist named Dr. Patrick Konewko. He was just 54 years old. Upon news of his death, all I could think was, "But he had so much more to do!"
This particular doctor should serve as a model for all, though I know that it's unrealistic to expect many to be as dedicated as he. Dr. Konewko had enormous compassion for Alzheimer's patients and their families. He donated endless hours to Alzheimer's groups and helped educate the public about the disease.
Shortly after my newspaper column on eldercare began to run in our local paper, Dr. Konewko called me at work to tell me what a gift to the community the column was. After I hung up the phone, I literally sat and stared into space - shocked. At the time, I'd never met the man. I just kept thinking, "A doctor took time from his day to call me and thank me for my contribution to the community. I can't believe it."
But that's the kind of man he was. That was the kind of doctor he was. He told me, during that brief conversation, that the doctors have the easy part. They diagnose. It's the caregivers - the families - that have the hard part. They will go on to live with and support this person he just diagnosed. He looked at caregivers as heroes.
If only there were more doctors like Patrick Konewko.