“My doctor never looks me in the eye.”
“My doctor never asks how my spouse or family is coping with my illness.”
“I always feel rushed in my doctor’s office.”
Almost every patient whom I interviewed for my books made comments similar to these when they talked about the conventional doctors who were not helpful to them. The comments were most often made about specialists or surgeons whom they had just met, not their primary care doctors, with whom they had longstanding relationships.
One woman suffering from severe chronic pain said of the specialist she consulted, “The doctor kept looking at her watch while she was talking to me. I felt like I wanted to hold onto the hem of her white robe to keep her in the room with me.”
The husband of another patient burst into tears when a doctor finally asked him how he had been holding up. “During the months of my illness, when he was taking over the house and family responsibilities and worrying about me, no one had ever seemed to care about him before,” said his wife.
Patients like these are among the one-third of Americans — with some estimates as high as 60 percent — who seek help from complementary/alternative (CAM) practitioners every year, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. In addition to providing alternative treatments for chronic pain and other conditions that are less effectively treated by conventional medicine, CAM practitioners and integrative physicians (who combine CAM with conventional care) often provide the compassionate, holistic care that many patients seek, but often do not receive, from their doctors. We expect excellent medical care and advice from our doctors, but we also have the right to more: We should ask our doctors to truly see us for the whole people we are: to look us in the eye and understand our dreams, worries, family and work pressures, preferences and philosophies of life.
The “fifteen-minute” medical appointment is not the problem. While I appreciate that doctors are overburdened and have too little time to spend with their patients, it is possible to make a real, human connection with someone in just a few minutes. I have experienced this from conventional doctors — even in the emergency room of a major academic medical center— so I know it can be done. I have also experienced the opposite: The surgeon who airily told me that my upcoming Marfan-related operation would be “just like having your hair done,” ignoring my terror at the prospect of open-heart surgery. And when I woke up from the surgery with half my body paralyzed, it was he who said, “Sorry you stroked, but heart-wise you’re fine.” He had done his job well; the rest of my life was up to me. With the support of my family and the help of integrative medicine, I recovered completely from the stroke, but not because of him.
We should not hesitate to ask our doctors to appreciate the important roles of our spouses, partners, children and friends in helping us recover from illness or injury. These people are often the best source of support and encouragement, and their love comes for free! At the very least, the medical system should recognize and appreciate their contributions, if not provide them with support as well.