Being a Patient Makes Us Better Providers

August 16, 2016

A certified PA's own experience as a patient offers reminders and insights on how to better serve patients.

It is not enough to simply practice medicine. As providers, the way we care for our patients is as important as the knowledge we possess.

Each of us has our own method of engaging with and managing patients; an approach that is individualized yet influenced by training and experience. However, it was only after a life-changing diagnosis for myself and my youngest daughter that I came to realize both the power of the diagnosis and the importance of the empathy we provide to our patients.

When my daughter was born in 2012, she was diagnosed with hydrocephalus, along with several other serious medical conditions that required countless medical appointments, tests, and treatments. Then, in 2014, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and required multiple surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation. Those events changed our lives dramatically. Just as important, they changed my perspective as a healthcare provider.

Some experiences with doctors over the last few years have been incredible - providing the emotional support, education, and treatment quality we needed. Other interactions fell short. These experiences allowed me an opportunity to re-evaluate the way I practice medicine. Was I giving my patients the information, treatment, and emotional support they needed to overcome their situation?

As a certified PA in emergency medicine, my interaction with patients is critical, and I have the opportunity to make an immediate impact on their lives. My patients in the emergency room need someone who looks out for them and ensures they receive the best care possible. All healthcare providers are called to be patient advocates, not just medical practitioners. The challenge is, with our many other responsibilities, how can we step up and fill this role?

These are the takeaways from my own experience as a patient that have changed the way I practice:

1. Remember what it's like to be the patient.

Even though we have the knowledge and skills to treat medical conditions, being a patient is different. You may be overwhelmed with fear of the unknown or can't collect your thoughts long enough to ask questions. It's helpful to have the provider in your corner trying to anticipate those questions for you.

2. The patients need to matter to us.

They're more than a medical case; they're real people with their own lives, families, and struggles. Until we humanize them, we won't be able to treat them to our fullest potential.

3. How care is provided is as important as what care is provided.

Treating all patients with respect is key. When examining and treating my patients, I ask questions to get to know them, not just what has brought them into the emergency room. I explain any testing that needs to be done, discuss the results, and carefully review treatment plans. I try to remember to talk with my patients and not to them. It's my job to educate them so they comprehend their situation and can get better.

4. How patients' experience a diagnosis is influenced by their life situation.

Understand that patients may have the exact same diagnosis, but internalize it in different ways. We need to meet patients where they are and customize the manner of treatment to those needs. This requires us to listen.

5. A strong support system for patients is vital.

Having a reliable support system can make a tremendous difference in patients' health. Get the families engaged and involved in your patients' healthcare.

6. Join - or start - a committee aimed at improving quality, patient safety, patient interaction and patient experience. Whether you practice in a large hospital system or in a private practice, meeting with fellow practitioners, colleagues, and families to discuss how the delivery of healthcare can be improved for your patients can only benefit your practice.

7. It's OK to get to know your patients.

In fact, it's critical. Listen to their story. Share your story. They can learn from you; and you can learn from them. This will change the way you practice. Be brave enough to connect!

Ultimately, patient advocacy grows out of empathy. We all have a story and hardships. Allow that experience to connect you with your patients. When you can build that bridge, it will result in effortless empathy and better care for your patients. At that point, you stop just doing your job and start really caring for people.

Sarah Cawley, PA-C, practices in emergency medicine at Southwest Hospital in Middleburg Heights, Ohio. In addition to her clinical position, Cawley has administrative roles, volunteers at a pregnancy center, and is a family engagement adviser, a member of several patient advocacy committees, and speaks regularly on patient experience and family engagement.

This blog was provided in partnership with the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants.