First Words

Patient care means listening to the patient

There’s little excuse for doctors skipping over basic compassion.

Tim Hanson had a rough encounter when he met his oncologist for the first time. Being diagnosed with a glioblastoma is a weighty burden for anyone to bear. But having your assigned physician treat you like a piece of chuck roast only deepens that burden.

Tim and his wife, Brooke, told me how disturbed they were by the physician’s impersonal manner. “Did we make a mistake by going to a university research hospital?” they asked. I didn’t think so, but I wanted to learn more. They gave me a verbatim report of their first meeting. Doctor: “Have you been told what kind of tumor you have?” Tim indicated that he was aware he had a glioblastoma. Doctor: “You know that’s the worst kind to have. It’s the fastest growing and most aggressive. Yours is grade IV. You do know that, don’t you?” They hadn’t been told the stage of the cancer yet, but they were too stunned by his brusqueness to respond. Doctor: “Do you want to know what your prognosis is?” That’s when the couple looked each other in the eye with a knowing glance. They were ready for a new oncologist. “No,” Tim replied calmly.

To care for a patient, you have to care about the patient. It’s not unusual to expect physicians to approach patients with vast clinical experience and medical knowledge that patients can’t possibly match. But to treat patients without wanting to understand even the outlines of their values is to practice arrogant medicine. Even if the bureaucratized and regulated character of medicine today leaves less time for doctors and patients to bond, there’s little excuse for skipping over basic compassion.