I awoke from my (first ever) surgery due to an ectopic pregnancy feeling devastated at my loss of a dreamed for child. I was drowning in sorrow and looking for a lifeline. So when my doctor came in to see me in recovery I told him of my distress. He responded, "there are women here on their second ectopic pregnancy”, which made me feel worse. I was shocked and horrified and withdrew deeper into my own misery. Once I recovered in body and spirit I felt anger at the doctor’s response at a time when I was so vulnerable and in need of compassion. In fact this incident was the impetus for writing Communication Breakthrough, How Using Brain Science and Listening To Body Cues Can Transform Your Relationships (2018) at vincentiaschroeterphd.com. Here are some tips for physicians and medical personnel in dealing with patients in need.
Bedside Manners for Medical Personnel:
Don’t say, “It could be worse.” While you may intend to lessen their distress, you end up minimizing the validity of the patient’s pain. As in my story, even if you have seen worse, this patient needs to be met with compassion, reassurance and comfort.
Do let the patient know that you are competent and in control. It is reassuring to hear from medical staff, “We will take good care of you.”
Do connect on a human level. Ask the patient how they are feeling.
Bedside Manners for Patients:
Do ask for what you want and need or enlist the help of a family member or friend to be your “patient advocate” and assertively communicate with medical personnel.
Don't keep your body tense before a procedure. Breathe slowly and count your breaths when you are anxious. Look away and focus on a spot on a wall, if distracting helps you. Have something to hold onto. I take a “stuffy" (small stuffed animal) with me to some dental and medical procedures. Squeezing the stuffy slowly and rhythmically with my hands helps me relax.
Do tell them if you are scared and what might make you feel safer. Some patients like all the details, some prefer to be distracted and not know exact details. Some want to be looked at warmly or have their hand held. Do what makes you feel best.
As a patient you want to feel some bond with the people who have your life in their hands. A feeling of connection makes you feel more confident in what is being done to you, and the safer you feel the better your body will respond to medical procedures. The communication skills outlined above enhance your feeling of safety and ideally should be part of the training of medical practitioners.
The following is an example of a physician “getting it right” when interacting with a woman who had to have a medical abortion because of acute ulcerative colitis. The pregnancy would have killed both her and the baby. My father-in-law, who was the physician taking care of her, just looked at her compassionately and said, “that is a crummy deal.” By this short and direct phrase he connected with her simply and compassionately as a concerned human being and in so doing was able to ease her pain and fear.