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I’m, aware, as I’m sure you are, that certain positions in particular industries have poor reputations for empathy and communication. These include airport security personnel (though my own TSA experiences have been very pleasant) and, most maligned of all, telecom (cable) customer service staff. (I should make clear that I’m not myself subscribing to these stereotypes, either as a consumer or as a customer service consultant. In the cable industry, for example, you can read my writings here about one wonderful employee–Jerry Biggs–at Comcast, and here about customer-focused upstarts in the telecom/cable industry including Scottsdale-based Nextiva, which has gone so far as to trademark the term Amazing Service.)
Likewise, when I’m serving as a patient experience consultant, which is part of my overall customer service consultancy, I spend time devising ways for both frontline and clinical staff to improve their interactions with patients and patients’ loved-ones. Here, one specialization with an (earned or unearned) reputation for tone-deafness is surgery. To the extent that this rap is deserved, it’s understandable. The appeal of going into surgery as a young doctor is partly its cut-and-dried aspect: you either achieve clear margins or you don’t.
But the people whom a surgeon cuts into are exactly that: people. And while I would never advise a prospective patient to choose a surgeon with shaky hands or board-validated competency complaints (even if the doctor is sweet as the day is long), the ideal surgeon includes both parts of the package: clinical competence and empathetic engagement skills for interacting with patients and the families who love them.
I recently encountered such a surgeon, Chirag A. Shah, MD, MPH, a gynecological oncologist who practices in the greater Seattle area, often at Swedish Medical Center. I’d become impressed enough with Dr. Shah’s approach and outcomes that I wanted to understand how he manages to blend clinical skills and humanity.
“Everything works better in medicine if you take a whole view of the person,” says Shah. “People think of surgery as a binary, black-and-white discipline; I find this to be both true and not true. Every patient is different, and a good outcome for one patient isn’t necessarily ideal for another. For me, taking a whole view of the patient, the person, leads me to be involved after the surgery with their care, particularly in the case of patients who continue to live with cancer and require various types of follow-up. And, just as importantly, it affects how I go about assessing their case before surgery.”
He proceed to give me an example where this leads to what he has found to be verifiably better medical outcomes. ”There was a woman in my office whose tests looked reasonable but who was stoically leaning against my office wall–soundlessly, but in a way that suggested she was in major discomfort. To me, it was clear nothing was as it should be, so I admitted her [to the hospital] that night. In fact, her issue went beyond what the imaging showed, and it was good we took the situation in hand when we did.”
This is one reason why, no matter how technically evolved medicine gets, “empathy still matters: reading not only the verbal cues, but the physical cues, the social-emotional cues. I admit that I personally had good models for this approach,” not in the curriculum in med school, where empathy is only now being given much formal attention, “but from mentors of mine, including my parents, who are also physicians.” (They shared an office for over 40 years, Shah tells me, that had one desk and two chairs, “and, believe it or not, they’re still happily married.”)
July 11, 2019 at 01:47PM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs