I was asked recently what one thing I would like to tell physicians, nurses, and other health care providers. I just wrote a book about interacting with the health care system, and its content ran the gamut of emotion: gratitude, optimism, frustration, skepticism--clearly I’m not one for brevity.
In the end, though, the answer was succinct, and the more I think about it, it is something that applies to patients and practitioners equally:
Keep an open mind.
In terms of diagnosis, the flash point for so many patients with chronic conditions, keeping an open mind works in several ways. For physicians, it means remembering that the obvious, logical diagnosis may not always be the correct one, something I can attest to personally. I am forever grateful to the physicians who looked beyond what “should” have made sense for a diagnosis and found the diagnosis that actually reflected both my experiences and my symptoms—even if it was an exceedingly rare one. For patients, it means remembering that even if you’ve been dismissed before, it is possible to start fresh with a physician or nurse practitioner and work towards a correct diagnosis.
In daily life, keeping an open mind means, quite literally, being open to new or creative ways to adapt to illness. Whether it means trying techniques like yoga or meditation, incorporating new foods and recipes into meal planning, or very pragmatic things like switching your exercise schedule or working out a flex time arrangement with an employer, keeping an open mind means recognizing there are many different approaches towards accomplishing a particular wellness or lifestyle goal.
If you’ve been reading this blog regularly, then you know how important I think an open mind and a willingness to try new ways of solving existing problems are to meeting some of the universal challenges in health care: better disease outcomes, increased compliance, and, yes, of course, more accurate and efficient diagnoses.
That’s why I’ve posted about the value of expressive writing, and why I developed a creative writing program for chronically ill pediatric patients. It’s also why I think programs like Dancing with Parkinson's or Loolwa Khazzoom's Natural Pain Relief that use dance and other forms of the arts to relieve pain, increase strength, and otherwise address symptoms of debilitating disease are incredibly valuable.
It’s also why I was so interested in "Monet? Gauguin? Using Art to Make Better Doctors" from Sunday’s Boston Globe, which discussed a class at Harvard Medical School that encouraged medical students to use art to improve that most fundamental and most complex of interactions—the patient exam and diagnostic process.
The article quotes Dr. Joel Katz, who first proposed the class five years ago, as saying, "We're trying to train students to not make assumptions about what they're going to see, but to do deep looking. Our hope is that they will be able to do this when they look at patients.”
Turns out, new research in the Journal of General Internal Medicine supports this. The article goes on to say that the students’ ability to make more observations increased by 38 percent. In age where physicians rely heavily on CT scans, MRIs and other specialty diagnostic tools—some argue too heavily, and at too high a cost for the health care consumer—helping medical students learn to see the many possibilities inherent in one situation is a valuable skill indeed. More precise observations yield more precise diagnoses.
Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? The course was a stark departure from the required core courses at Harvard Medical, but all it took was a few open minds…