Encouraging Patients Is Good Medicine

June 4, 2014
Jennifer Frank, MD

The pressure to excel can be an overriding factor in physicians' lives. So stop a minute and praise your staff, your patients, even yourself. It's good medicine.

I recently saw a young mother and her child for a follow-up visit from a recent hospitalization. This mother is dealing with her own medical conditions and her infant has been diagnosed recently with a serious congenital condition. The hospitalization was prompted, in part, by concerns that the child may not have been getting necessary care at home. At the end of the visit, I let the mom know that I think she is doing a good job with a difficult situation and that I could tell how much she cares about her child. She told me how much it meant to hear someone say that as she felt demeaned and judged by some of her child's previous care providers.

I can fully understand the concerns of a specialist taking care of this child who is in a delicate condition, medically speaking. I imagine the behavior the mother found objectionable was born of frustration on the part of a care team who is desperately doing their best for this tiny patient. Nevertheless, I know that this mother loves and cares for her child and is facing numerous obstacles in caring for her infant and herself. I'm not sure what led me to offer a moment of encouragement, but her response made me realize how rarely I do so with my patients, many of whom manage challenges with grace.

I think of the struggle we all seem to have with our own challenges - many of which can fall under the umbrella of work-life balance. I spend much of my time thinking of ways I can be a better doctor, wife, mother and all around person. It is rare that I offer encouragement to myself or those around me. How sad.

So often, it feels like a competition with other doctors, wives, and mothers to be the best, to have it all together, to never admit defeat or failure or doubt or worry. However, we are all facing the same types of battles. We all are trying to do our best for our patients, our families, and ourselves. Why is it that criticism comes so easily and praise is so difficult to cultivate?

I don't think that any of us have this life thing down perfectly. We make mistakes and fail to live up to our own expectations and those of others. We say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, and forget the toilet paper at the grocery store. It can feel overwhelming to try to get it all right. Granted the stakes aren't the same in all arenas of our lives, but the sense of failure can be just as strong for the small stuff as for the big stuff.

So, my challenge to my readers this week is to offer words of encouragement to those around you - the colleague who adjusts his schedule to be at a child's tennis game, your nurse who just started back to work after having a new baby, the receptionist who stayed late to take care of a patient. Don't forget to offer some words of encouragement to yourself as well.