To Know a Patient and be Known as a Doctor

December 6, 2016
Jennifer Frank, MD

She says being able to get to know her patients on a personal level is the best part of being a doctor and makes all the headaches of the job worth it.

One of my patients asked me today how long I've been a doctor. "Well, I graduated from medical school in 1999 and from residency in 2002, so I guess about 15 years." She asked me if I enjoyed my job to which I enthusiastically replied in the affirmative. I do enjoy interacting my patients and my work as a doctor.

At moments, I can say that it truly fills me with joy. We see many gaps in the way healthcare is delivered, but I believe that the soul of doctoring is the same now as it was when my grandfather hung up his shingle after World War II. It is about connection and relationship. Sometimes the connection is a single episode - an emergency department visit, a surgery, strep throat, but we know that in these moments when patients are sick, in pain or just looking for some answers that the way we talk to them, reassure them, and connect with them matters. It matters in how quickly they get better and how well they follow our instructions.

I recently made the acquaintance of a lovely woman who became ill as she was passing through our town. Due to some family circumstances and her illness, she elected to stay and receive treatment for a couple of weeks. She was medically complex and her illness was not straightforward. I had no records and she didn't even know the names of all her medications. I am human. My first instinct was to groan inwardly and try to figure out how in the world I would be able to care for her well with these handicaps. Quickly, though, I reset and reminded myself that this human being in front of me was now my patient, whether for a day or a year or a lifetime. We had a relationship, a connection upon which to base our mutual work going forward.

Due to administrative components of my current role, I spend less time than I'd like in clinic. My patients often will wait weeks or months to see me, since my schedule is so limited. A number of patients who saw me today explained why they waited for an appointment, or why they wanted to schedule the next appointment right away before my schedule became booked, or why they changed insurance plans to keep me as their primary-care doctor. They all said the same thing – "You know me."

How wonderful it is to be known - as a patient and as a person. What a privilege it is to know someone. Spending time with my patients is about making a connection and making connections – layered one on top of the other in moments of grief, pain, sickness, joy, and celebration. Over time, I get to know them more deeply which in turn lays the groundwork for whatever fate has in store for us. I do love my job and my calling, what a joyful profession.