Have you left a doctor's office feeling frustrated because you simply can't seem to find a connection? Why do some doctors seem so rude and emotionless?
I will never forget a particularly unsettling incident in the operating room while I was a young and impressionable medical student on my first surgery rotation:
Attending Surgeon: "Intern, what’s the story on this patient?”
Resident Intern (replies sheepishly): "This patient is a 51 year old with a left breast lump, and 17 out of 20 lymph nodes positive for cancer, returning to the operating room.”
Attending Surgeon (in a very matter-of-fact tone): “Oh, she’s F_ _ _’d.”
It felt as though the room temperature fell below zero for a moment—not because the OR is preserved like a freezer, but because the surgeon’s response seemed so cold. The intern fought hard not to appear uncomfortable in light of that deadened, crude response. But because medical school and residency have constructed a strict hierarchy, not unlike the military, there was no way that this intern was going to speak up in return—despite having a parent that also suffered from breast cancer.
At the time, being so low on the totem pole, I found myself peering over the sterile field in the corner and thinking:
A. I’m so glad surgery is not my field of interest (sorry, surgeons, but some of you can be pretty uninviting).
B. How in the world do physicians reach this surprising level of stoicism?
Last week, I discussed how challenging it can be to say goodbye to patients, despite this unnerving feeling that we as physicians are not supposed to allow ourselves to feel for them. Why is that? Why do we seemingly model our behavior after vampires? And how can we effectively treat patients if we don’t display compassion?
Primary care doctors are stereotypically more of the warm and fuzzy kind (relatively speaking), although I have met some very down-to-earth and compassionate specialists. However, there is still an underlying, unspoken culture among physicians across all specialties, including primary care, which frowns upon the expression of emotions in the medical field.
In some circles of health professionals, showing emotion is simply a big no-no.
As a patient, you may be curious about how this trend of stoicism evolved. When were physicians first taught of this unspoken ideology, which encouraged them not to feel?
I can recall as far back as my Gross Anatomy class while in medical school. In the early stages of the course, I was part of a small group of 3-4 eager medical students forced to confront our first real deceased human.
There was no denying how real he initially felt to us. He had a tattoo on his arm of someone's name, and it was clear he cared for that person. He had numerous surgical scars, more than we could count. Who was this man? How did he come to leave this world? Who did he leave behind? My peers and I contemplated the answers to these mysterious questions, even though we'd never discover their answers, while respectfully dissecting our mysterious cadaver.
When the course initially began, the medical school required its students to attend a “support group” of sorts. They understood the potentially emotional transition that may occur for us students as we likely faced death for the first time in the flesh.