From the moment I started medical school and for years thereafter, my friends called about bladder infections, birth control, and the occasional poison oak or ivy. As we moved into our forties, those calls gave way to ones about aging parents. Now in my fifties, my friends have begun asking about themselves and their partners as well. Cancers mostly, though occasionally something neurological, a new diagnosis every four to six months.
I’m sorry to bother you with this, they say. Or: I know I shouldn’t ask…Also, I know you’re really busy, and: I know this isn’t your area…
When I get the notes, my first reactions are shock and sadness – the reactions of a friend. Then I realize, I have an advantage over most other friends because I might be able to help. At the very least, I can advise them on what questions to ask and what the best care should include.
Their surprise and gratitude at my responses suggest they don’t realize is how pleased I am to be asked. There are few things in life more meaningful than being able to offer something to a friend in crisis. No less important, helping them reminds me of why I became a doctor and how good it feels to be useful.
Like most clinicians, I now spend far more time inputting data than communicating with patients in my exam room or colleagues via my notes. The electronic record system that holds the health data of most Americans was set up to facilitate billing, not patient care. Clinicians and patients are not their customers; the huge health systems that continue to buy the system are, and apparently, they don’t care that patients often feel like exam room accessories or that encounter notes now often consist of standardized words and redundant, inaccurate information.
Helping friends through medical crises is a gift. While doing so doesn’t count toward my salary or productivity metrics, it does let me do exactly what I signed up to do when I applied to medical school: to reason through a complex problem with a human being I care about and express my thoughts as best I can in hopes of being helpful.