Thank you for being a patient: A reflection on gratitude and its place in medicine.

I was walking through Target a few days ago when I noticed a banner had been discarded in a pile of clearance items. “Give Thanks,” it read. Assuming that the banner was a Thanksgiving leftover, I quickly moved along to a different aisle. Later that day, I started thinking about that banner, and its lowly place in the clearance bin. Gratitude has become a seasonal commodity. From November to mid-December, we’re reminded to give thanks, be grateful, and celebrate others through food and gifts. Unfortunately, the half-off banner serves as a reminder that the notion of gratitude can become “out-of-season” as we turn the page on the calendar.

One of my personal rules for daily life is to live each and every day with a grateful heart. I think this idea comes from having practiced yoga for more than a decade, where gratitude is a foundational tenant. At the end of almost every yoga class I have ever attended, both teacher and students bow their heads and say, “‘Namaste.” Namaste is a Sanskrit word which, loosely translated, means ‘the goodness in me honors the goodness in you.’ For me, this sacrosanct moment at the end of class is what makes yoga different from any other activity I have engaged in. As the instructor thanks me for allowing him or her to share the practice of yoga, I can both thank the instructor, as well as take a moment to thank myself for taking the time to do something good for myself. In contrasting my own personal attitude of gratitude with the Hallmark-esque notion that gratitude is a seasonal commodity, I began to wonder what place gratitude might have in the practice of medicine.

In my brief time as a student doctor, I have witnessed patients struggling with complex challenges that I never even considered prior to medical school. It’s true that many patients will visit us when they have a stuffy nose or an itchy rash, but just as important are patients who see us when they are struggling to quit addictions, deal with a major life change, or manage their own healthcare on a limited budget. It is these patients, especially, with whom it is imperative that we as healthcare providers work with to build trusting relationships. I believe that the first step of building such a relationship is an expression of gratitude. I want to thank patients for being brave, for reaching out, and for asking to get help. I want to tell them how very grateful I am that they have respected themselves enough to value their health, and for trusting me, or one of my colleagues, to help them make very important and potentially challenging life changes. Essentially, I want to say Namaste.

As we leave behind the snow-dusted magic of the holiday season, we should not let gratitude melt away like a snowman. Gratitude should be a part of our daily lives and a cornerstone of our medical practice. It only takes a moment to let our patients know how thankful we are for being part of their journey to wellness, but I predict that the impact it has on our physician-patient relationships will be long lasting.

 

Featured image:
The Stethoscope by Alex Proimos

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