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An Open Letter to My Son

Empathetical approach to patients.
Empathetical approach to patients.

The following is the letter I wrote to my youngest son at the time that I was President of the American Academy of Dermatology and he had just completed 3 years of medical school at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.  The message is pertinent even after these 11 years.  This letter was first published in Dermatology World in 1996.

AN OPEN LETTER TO MY SON                                     

Dear Hunter,


Now that you have completed the first three years of medical school and are increasingly excited about patient contacts and your future role as a physician, I'd like to take this opportunity to pass on to you some thoughts  which I have developed over many years of practice and which, if followed,  are certain to make your own professional life more rewarding and your patients more satisfied.


- Don't forget to smile as you enter the patient's room---such a simple gesture is terribly important and puts the patient immediately at ease.


- Remember that a patient is often frightened and lonely.  Take the time and expend the effort to sit down with that patient, relax and just talk and listen, rather than standing as though you are in a hurry to leave the room.


- Write your notes about the patient and your prescriptions in the patient's room---it is much more meaningful to them and permits you to spend more time with the patient---they may think of other questions important to them when you are relaxed.


- Touch the patient, even if just lightly on the arm.  This shows you are not afraid of catching whatever they have (whether skin disease or not), but also conveys concern and understanding.  It can be a magnificently important gesture.


-  But before you touch the patient, wash your hands in the presence of the patient.  This is not only important to prevent spread of disease but also shows respect for the patient.


- Learn some "non-essential" information about the patient, such as hobbies, recent trips, children's achievements, and ambitions.  Then make a note of this in the chart and bring up the subject again on the next visit.  You will be amazed at how impressed the patient is with your memory for these events!


- It is okay to express confidence in helping the patient that may not be totally justified by the options.  The patient's confidence in you and in the real possibility of improving their condition can enhance the healing process. 


- At the same time, tell the truth.  If the disease is not curable (as psoriasis or atopic dermatitis),  say so, but quickly add that it can be controlled with appropriate therapy.  I liken psoriasis to arthritis and diabetes---neither curable but both usually controllable.  Patients seem to understand and accept that better.


- If you are running behind schedule, apologize to the patient as you enter the room.  It puts them off guard if they were planning to complain, and lets them know you are aware that their time is also important.


- Express your appreciation often and sincerely to the people who help you be what you are---your colleagues, your nurses, your residents, your receptionists.  You will not be a success without them.  Be sure you let them know that.


This is such simple advice that we often forget it.  But you can only imagine how important it is only if you have been the patient rather than the doctor.  Start now and all of these traits will be with you for your professional lifetime.





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