Physician, heal thyself

A Toronto doctor’s personal experiences with cancer taught her more about cancer care than her medical training or many years in practice, according to an article published in The New England Journal of Medicine. Writing in the journal, Dr. Jane Poulson of the University of Toronto discusses the lessons she learned from experience, and gives advice to other physicians treating cancer patients.

Dr. Poulson writes that health care providers “are too often nonchalant about procedures or treatments and do not stop to think how it feels to be in the patient’s shoes.” She says that it was only during her own treatment that she “realized the number of bitter pills I had unwittingly delivered to patients during my 15 years of practice.”

Events that Poulson (as a doctor) had dismissed as necessary inconveniences proved to be much more significant from a patients’ viewpoint. She recalls that when a simple repair of radiation equipment postponed her therapy for three days, “my fear of radiation changed to terror at the possibility that my tumor would spread in the interim.” She was upset to consider the possibility of hair loss from treatment, resented hearing doctors openly diuss her case as “interesting”, and didn’t quite understand when she was told that she didn’t qualify for the test of a new treatment.

In the article, Dr. Poulson says that at least a portion of teaching rounds in hospitals should be spent asking with residents and interns simply asking patients how they are feeling.

“This approach would not only expose trainees to patients’ emotions,” she explains, “but it would also present patients as real people rather than simply objects of interest for budding physicians.”