Michael Abrahams | Doctors are humans, too
It was at least a decade ago. I was leaving a hotel in New Kingston after a meeting, and walking by the poolside bar. A man with a familiar face, but whose name I could not recall, approached and greeted me. He reminded me that I had managed his...
It was at least a decade ago. I was leaving a hotel in New Kingston after a meeting, and walking by the poolside bar. A man with a familiar face, but whose name I could not recall, approached and greeted me. He reminded me that I had managed his spouse during her pregnancy, and that I had been unable to deliver her when she went into labour because I was unwell. I immediately recalled the case. I was stricken with gastroenteritis, and unable to go to the hospital, so I asked a colleague to step in for me. This was the only time I missed a delivery due to illness. I told the man I remembered the incident very well. He responded by shaking his head, as if in disbelief, and saying, “Mi neva know seh docta can get sick.” I looked at him, shook my head too, bade him farewell, and departed.
I should not feel the need to say this, but doctors are human, too. We are not robots. We are not programmed computers. We are not avatars. Being human, we will become exhausted at times. We will make errors of judgement. We will make mistakes. It is human to err, but the sobering reality for us is that our errors have the potential to cause harm. If a cashier at a supermarket makes a mistake at the cash register, she calls out “override”, the supervisor appears and fiddles with the instrument, cancelling the error, and she is good to go again. Not so with us. Yes, I know, we chose the profession, and the stress that goes hand in hand with it but, as the popular saying goes, “the struggle is real”.
In order to reduce the risk of making mistakes, we have to take care of ourselves. The work-life balance is important for our well-being and that of our family members. We advocate it for our patients, but we need it, too. Being able to achieve that balance enhances our well-being and makes us happier. And if we are happier, the positive energy we exude will, in turn, have a positive effect on those under our care.
TAKE CARE OF OURSELVES
But, in order to achieve that balance, there are steps we need to take that some may be uncomfortable with. For example, it is important for us to set boundaries. If you have access to us outside of our regular working hours, please think carefully before you call us. I have been called at nights and on weekends by patients asking about Pap smear results. I have been accosted at supermarkets, pharmacies, cinemas, theatres, on beaches and at birthday parties, weddings and other social events by patients inquiring about their medical conditions, appointments and results. We need down time too. We need a break. We have families. We have other interests. Some of us are struggling with our own illnesses and conditions too, ranging from the debilitating effects of cancer and its treatment, to sleep deprivation and the mental stress and fatigue of burnout.
Speaking of burnout, it is a real phenomenon. We cannot be available to everyone 24/7, 365. It is just not humanly possible. If we attempt this noble feat, it will take a toll on us. The longer we practise, the more patients we see. If we manage these patients successfully, word gets around, and our patient lists will grow, especially in private practice. As our lists grow, the demands on us increase. And as these demands increase, so do our levels of stress. We try, but as hard as we do, we just cannot please everyone.
Compassion fatigue is real, too. Even the most compassionate among us can be overwhelmed to the point where indifference creeps in and compassion wanes. This was not uncommon during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yes, there were differences of opinion, even among specialists. But when, after years of medical school, internship and in some cases, postgraduate training and research – in addition to experience in hospitals, clinics and private practice – people with little to no knowledge and understanding of virology, immunology and epidemiology dismiss your advice based on social media videos made by people they know little or nothing about, frustration will set in.
This is not to excuse unprofessional and unethical conduct. Again, because we are human, you will find the unempathetic, the arrogant, the rude, the cold and the mercenary among us. Every profession has its rogues and outliers. This discourse is not about making excuses, but rather to engender empathy towards us. We should express empathy toward our patients, but, being human, we need empathy, too.
Michael Abrahams is an obstetrician and gynaecologist, social commentator and human-rights advocate. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @mikeyabrahams.