Clinical Patient-Centered Care Reflection

“Listen to understand” not “listen to reply”

A two-month stint at the oncology department in a Singapore government hospital has provided me with vivid examples of the importance of doctor-patient relationships and communication. Cancer, in many societies, is still widely regarded as medical taboo – a condition people closely associate with death. While I got to witness very sensitive and depressing conversations in relation to end-of-life care, the most impactful conversation I experienced had nothing to do with end-of-life care. Rather, it was a complaint from a patient about his team of allegedly negligent doctors.

It took place in a private ward room with just Mr. C and his wife. When I first entered the room, Mr. C gave me a hostile look and asked me who I was. Feeling awkward given the cold welcome, I persisted to introduce myself as a medical student who wanted to take his history. Although reluctant, he agreed to talk to me. What started as a cold introduction turned out to be an hour-long avenue for Mr. C to vent his anger and frustrations. It became etched in my mind for the important lesson that came with it.

I understood from Mr. C that it was not the diagnosis that brought about his unhappiness, but how the diagnosis came about.  Mr. C presented with a 6-month history of progressive dull epigastric pain and loss of weight with no co-morbidities. He had no associated fevers, nausea or vomiting. The conversation went well until I asked him the question, “Did you bring this to your doctor’s attention?”

Immediately, there was a change in his facial expression. I divined from his grim expression that the news was not good. He started shaking his head, somewhat in disappointment. His wife started tearing. I had inadvertently asked a sensitive question and was caught helplessly in that moment of grief and sorrow.

Mr. C then explained that he actually went to the Emergency Department (ED) thrice as his abdominal pain worsened. Unfortunately, on the first two occasions, they sent him home after establishing that his vitals were stable with no abnormalities in his test results. He was sent home with a stack of medications but without a diagnosis.

Interestingly, Mr. C actually suspected himself that he had gastric cancer given his strong family history; he expected that he would suffer from it one day. The doctors shook it off despite his persuasion. On the third visit, however, the doctors finally admitted him and performed an endoscopy. It was later confirmed to be Stage 3 gastric cancer. It was at this point in the conversation when emotions started running wild.

The atmosphere heated up. I was shot with questions and complaints by both Mr. C and his wife.

“I would not have been denied earlier detection and treatment if doctors listened to my history,” Mr. C said.

“That period of 6 months could have made a huge difference to his disease stage and prognosis!” Mr. C’s wife added.

“Do you think the doctors have done the right thing for me?” he asked.

“Doctors never bother to hear patients out!” he shouted.

It felt as if the blame was on me, and I felt angry for a moment. I was on the edge of questioning his accusations, and refuting his comments. I was conflicted inside. On the one hand, the manner in which he was treated at the ED seemed unjustified. But at the same time it did not seem fair for me to blame the doctors without understanding what their line of thought was.

I further understood that Mr. C had explained his case to a senior consultant, who was also the surgeon who performed his gastrectomy. The surgeon brushed Mr. C off, and told him rudely to switch to another hospital if he did not like it here. It was at this point that I stood in favor of Mr. C. I actually could not believe such an insolent comment would come from the mouth of a senior doctor, whom I thought was supposed to possess the maturity and authority to handle such a complex matter.

Mr. C and his wife were evidently distraught with how the diagnosis came about, compounded by the fact that he was still relatively young to suffer from stage 3 gastric cancer. He explained that gastric cancer is one of the most aggressive and treatment-resistant cancers with the highest mortality rate, as evident from the young deaths of his family members who succumbed to the illness. My heart immediately sank after coming to terms with his bleak prognosis.  I recalled what was taught in my clinical skills classes, and took on an empathetic coat to try and calm them down. I felt an ephemeral sense of shame for the apparent lack of professionalism Mr. C’s doctors had displayed. Furthermore, I was sunk in guilt for initially doubting his comments.

I continued with the rest of the history and thanked Mr. C and his wife for their time. I walked out of the room and told them, “Thank you for sharing with me. Both of you have taught me about the kind of doctor whom I do not want to emulate in the future”.

It was an eventful hospital experience for Mr. C, and a rather eventful conversation for me with him and his wife. Despite the awkwardness and negative emotions, it taught me a great deal about the nature of difficult situations, the qualities a doctor should possess, and the importance of communication.

It was no doubt a challenging conversation. It was unlike all the other conversations I have had with patients, that were full of praise for their doctors, which always reassured me of my choice to become one.  My limited exposure to issues that arise from the lack of proper doctor-patient communication caught me off guard during this particular conversation.

When I mentioned to Mr. C that I was a medical student, his facial expression and body language conveyed his bitterness and dissatisfaction. It was almost as if he had something against me. I was filled with self-doubt and hesitancy. I was unsure if I should persist with the conversation given his hostile appearance but I knew that he had a story that he was dying to tell. Mr. C’s experience at the ED has probably altered his perception of doctors, and it was worth it to hear him out.

In hindsight, I am consoled by the fact that I had that conversation with Mr. C because he gradually opened up to me, treated me as an avenue to vent his frustrations, and perhaps subconsciously, taught me a lesson or two about being a doctor. I have learned that patients are always keen for a listening ear, be it to share their joy, or to pour their sorrows. It is hence important for medical students like me to not be doubtful when approaching patients for the fear of intruding in their privacy or taking up their needful rest time. Never be afraid that you are just an unqualified medical student.

Communication is the crux of medicine. As Sir William Osler said, “The good physician treats the disease; the great physician treats the patient who has the disease.” History-taking is not just about the whims and fancies of signs, symptoms, investigations, and differentials. It is in fact a conversation, an opportunity to build rapport and trust with the patient. We are not community health surveyors ticking off boxes in our questionnaire; we are there to hear our patients out by expressing their problems and concerns. There is no better opportunity than in medical school, where you are not confined by the “rush hour” situation in hospitals, to hone these human skills.

Fortunately, patients tend to given you their trust, and willingly share their most personal information with you. This has shown me the power imbalance of the doctor-patient relationship, which arguably has been exploited in Mr. C’s case – i.e. doctors sometimes do not give patients enough attention.

Another issue that I struggled with was handling the complaints that were hurled my way. My lack of maturity was evident from my agitation, and the urge I had to refute Mr. C. Deep down, I was conflicted and defensive. Mr. C’s story contradicted my own impression that all doctors do their best for patients. It felt as if I was taking the blame on behalf of all doctors. However, I decided to stay quiet about it. I learnt that doctors aren’t  “super-humans” who will never make mistakes. It was only when I started consolidating my thoughts and weighing out the situation that I was eventually convinced that Mr. C’s care was indeed compromised by the negligence of his various doctors.

Admittedly, I handled the situation rather poorly. I reckon it was largely due to lack of exposure to such situations, especially given the sheltered, cozy environment we enjoy in medical school. Clinical interactions are based around simulated patients who, more often than not, have simple presentations that are short enough for us to take a history and perform a physical examination. Everything is staged for us to learn in a protected environment. Even in hospitals, the patients we see are recommended by interns as “cooperative enough” for us to take a history.

Medical students should be taught how to deal with complicated cases through the use of simulated patients. When I say complicated, I mean in a psychosocial sense rather than in a medical sense. The skills needed to deal with these situations are those that cannot be taught through textbooks, but through practice. These are human skills; skills that define the art of medicine. These non-scientific skills may not be as interesting as pathology, physiology or anatomy, but are equally, if not more important than the scientific aspects that students are often keener about.

Students are often enthusiastic to ask senior doctors about the scientific aspects of a patient’s presentation. Similarly, they should not be shy to ask them about approaches they should adopt when such situations arise. I am inclined to believe that most students underestimate the importance of communication, which often takes a backseat in their learning priorities.

Medical schools can no longer assume that their students are equipped with the necessary communication and social skills from just clinical skills examinations, which are often not representative of an actual hospital setting. Rather, explicit emphasis on the mastery of such complicated yet common social presentations, should be made an integral part of the curriculum.

I have learned the importance of giving patients the space to talk. For example, in my encounter, I was close to interrupting Mr. C when he was complaining about his experience. Having done so, however, would have prevented me from comprehending the entire situation in context. As medical students, we need to appreciate the difference between “listening to reply” and “listening to understand”. Practice the latter, not the former. Never be too quick to cut off your patients halfway through, and jump to conclusions. Let them tell their whole story, and you will be surprised to find that it contains most of the answers you need.

Photo Credit: Ky

disability Emotion Lifestyle Patient-Centered Care Psychology

Nodding Along

My grandmother was a strong and compassionate Egyptian woman, a mother of three, and a pathologist. On a glass slide, exactly like the ones she used daily, cells from her colon biopsy were identified as undifferentiated, and within days she was diagnosed with Stage IV Colon Cancer.

Although I am learning how to care for people in sickness and health, someday, the chest compressions will be applied to my chest. Disease knows no discrimination, and death unites us all. Thousands of cancer diagnoses and precise and growing knowledge of cancer cell types did nothing to protect my grandmother from that which she knew so much about.

In Egypt, cancer is called ’the bad disease’, and bad it is. Over the next couple months, we watched as the bad disease took our beloved grandmother away from us. During that time, my family members, and my grandmother, had to make a series of challenging decisions that they were very obviously not prepared to make.

Medical advancements, although the main reason we are living longer lives, have caused the complexity and variety of end-of-life decisions to be ever increasing. Uneasy about the series of decisions that my family had to make and handicapped by my ignorance, I found myself reading Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. Atul Gawande led me through a vulnerable and imperfect but inspiring conversation about death and dying, exposing our medical system’s inability to understand health beyond the one-dimensional, and presumptuously noble, endeavor to prolong life at any cost.

While reading Being Mortal, I found myself enthusiastically nodding along, agreeing with the theme of the book: we need to change everything about our simple but destructive approach to aging and our increasing elderly population. Our singular approach to prolonging life simplifies complex social and medical decisions. It seems the attitude now is that longer life is all that matters. Ensuring nutrition and shelter is our only standard for a viable living environment for the elderly. We are failing our parents and grandparents.

Atul Gawande’s presentation of ideas changed how I perceive aging and our healthcare decisions at the end of life. I became a strong advocate of having conversations about the inevitability of our death and the choices we want to be made during our end-of-life care. I was convinced that society and healthcare should ensure that the elderly remain the authors of their own stories for as long as they are willing, and actively empower them to do so. Nutrition, shelter, and minimizing fall risk are minimums of care, not acceptable standards.

The Literature in Medicine Student Interest Group at my school decided to read Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, and I could not be more excited. In the middle of our meeting discussing the book, as I was passionately sharing my ideas, it occurred to me that although I was full of strong opinions, I had done absolutely nothing to be a part of the solution. My grandfather had come to live with us after his wife of 55 years, my grandmother, passed away from colon cancer, and my only roles/concerns in his care have been to ensure food, sleep, and meds. My strong opinions had not inspired my actions.

Nodding along to Atul Gawande’s criticisms of our medical system is easy, but having an honest conversation with my grandfather about his priorities and end-of-life care preferences as he reaches 90 years of age is not so easy. How might I empower my grandfather to continue to be the author of his story? Believing that healthcare is a right and not a privilege is easy, but carrying out the responsibility that this belief invokes is not so easy. How might I work to help provide all my neighbors with equal access to high-quality care? Practicing the invaluable intervention of presence is not easy, and working day after day to hone my abilities at the art of empathy is not easy. How might I overcome my doubts, fears, and insecurities, and avoid being frozen into lack of compassion?

Too often my strong opinions do not inform my actions. Too often my hate for dysfunctional and unjust systems overshadows my love for the people in the systems. I call myself to love my neighbors more than hate the systems, for love is actionable and hate is stifling and tiresome. Let love fuel the tank, for compassion-based activism is the only kind that goes the distance.

Photo Credit: Dan Strange


Properly Unprepared

It was late afternoon, and the current nursing shift would be relieved in less than ninety minutes. The feeling of impending Friday freedom was palpable on the floor of the intensive care unit. I was on my way to meet with my last patient of the week, who had been brought in for an unintentional drug overdose. My goal was to determine whether the overdose was truly accidental, and if she was a candidate for compulsory psychiatric hospitalization. I passed by a large bank of computers without stopping, and knocked on the patient’s door. When I walked in that room, all I knew was the patient’s name, her age, and the reason for her hospitalization. Other than those preliminary facts, she was a complete mystery to me. I spent fifty minutes with the patient, and had a relatively pleasant conversation. When I walked out of her room, I opened her medical chart for the first time.

Unfortunately, that day, the story that I received from the patient and the information that I got from her chart told two different stories. Numerous providers had noted that she was irresponsible with medications, and I got the sense from the chart that she only sought medical care to gain access to controlled substances. Now that I had established a good relationship with my patient, I would have to re-interview her in an attempt to reconcile the information I had seen in her chart with the picture she had painted for me in the moments prior. My Friday freedom would just have to wait.

I would not be surprised to find out that the ICU staff was laughing at me that day. After all, I ended up spending more than two hours with this patient when I could have conducted only one brief interview. Even though the majority of my first hour with the patient was pure confabulation, I viewed it as a valuable component of my assessment. That first hour represented my sole opportunity to get to know my patient without any bias. Had I looked at her chart before walking into the room, I unquestionably would have written her off as an irresponsible, drug-seeking troublemaker. I would have asked her pointed, perhaps accusatory questions about her behaviors, and worse, I would have known exactly when she was lying to me, further eroding any respect I may have had for this patient.

Electronic medical record systems help to facilitate the sequestration of large amounts of information about our patients with minimal effort, and it’s largely considered taboo to meet with patients without first researching their medical record.  The information physicians can learn from the medical record can be undoubtedly beneficial in many situations, but extensive chart reviews can also lure us into a false sense of security, allowing us to preconceive an identity for our patients before ever having met them.

Had I read my patient’s chart that afternoon, I am certain that I would have made judgments about her that would have influenced my interview. Instead, I learned about my patient by allowing her to tell her own story. I thought about the information she shared with me, and, perhaps more importantly, what she failed to tell me. Because the patient never discussed her well-documented mishandling and possible dependence on prescription medications, I felt confident in making an assessment that this patient had relatively poor insight about her problems.

Featured image:
hGraph: patient + clinician looking together by Juhan Sonin

General Public Health Reflection

Are you listening? Using the doctor-patient relationship to curb community violence.

If you’ve paid attention to the news recently, you might share my concern that mass shootings are becoming a normalized part of American culture. According to data collected by the United Nations, America leads the developed world in firearm homicides.[1] As a college student in Washington, DC, social justice was an inextricable part of my education. I volunteered, protested, and campaigned for issues I felt strongly about. Assuming you weren’t a student in our nation’s capital, let me tell you that these are all pretty typical parts of the DC college experience. In fact, my zeal for progressivism in the arenas of health and wellness contributed to my desire to become a physician. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until two of my friends were murdered within six weeks of each other this summer that I felt compelled to take a closer look at how, as a medical student, I could better integrate my passion for social justice into my education and clinical practice.

As medical students, our education becomes our lifestyle. It’s demanding, consuming, and vigorous. My support system likes to remind me that I’m not Atlas and that I can’t hold the weight of the world on my shoulders. They tell me to keep my nose in a book and stay focused on my studies. It’s difficult for me to comply with these directives when I feel like I’m neglecting the part of myself that is aware of the world beyond medical school. It took this summer’s tragedies to remind me that even as a student doctor, I need to hold myself accountable for working to reduce social injustice, particularly community violence. What I’ve realized is that while my activism efforts may not reflect those I experienced as a college student, I can still make simple adjustments in my current practice to potentiate positive change.

Since this summer, one of the modifications I made, in an effort to merge my medical and activist identities, is to ask my patients to rate their stress on a scale of one to ten when I take their social history. On the surface, this might not seem like a significant exercise. After all, I’ve been asking my patients about their life stressors since I started school last year. What I realized is that while most people can easily spout off a list of things that make them feel strained (bills, student loans, family responsibilities, looming deadlines, etc.), it’s an entirely different exercise to ask patients to evaluate their stress from a holistic perspective. Though this practice correlates stress level to a numerical value, I have found that I can actually get a better qualitative picture of a patient’s mental and emotional wellbeing and self-awareness by using the one-to-ten stress scale. Perhaps by using this scale, we will be able to gain awareness of and provide support for struggling patients before they feel compelled to turn towards violence.

I encourage you to employ the one-to-ten stress scale into your history taking routine in the hope that it can open the door to bigger, more important conversations about wellness and lifestyle with our patients. Please feel free to let me know how the scale works for you. I look forward to spending the rest of my medical career advocating for those who are underserved by the medical community, but for now, I hope that having these conversations can be a first step in helping patients deal with problems before they resort to violence. In the weeks and months that have followed the deaths of my friends, I find myself thinking a lot about the people who committed the violent acts that claimed their lives. I wonder if they had medical professionals in their lives who they felt comfortable talking to, and I wonder what they would have said if we, the medical community, had been listening.


  1.  Global Study on Homicide. (2011). United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Featured image:
Brother by Fabrizio Rinaldi

Opinion Reflection

Dear Doctor

Dear Doctor,

I hear you when you speak of that girl in the hospital ward. The ‘overdose in bed three.’ I hear the harsh judgements sneering through your lips, the sighs and the mutterings of ‘what a waste of life.’ As a student, I am all too privy to such remarks made in the corners of these hospitals. I have fallen upon them again and again.

Please do not be so quick to stereotype. Do you know how it feels to have your mind infiltrated by such intense emotions of self-hatred and loathing? Do you know how lonely it can be to lie curled within the four walls of your bedroom, just you and your mind waged in an eternal battle?

Yes, I realise how cliché that sounds. I know you have just come back from speaking to a young gentleman who has been paralysed. I know you have spent your years dealing with the terminally ill, holding the hands of the dying as you speak to a family overwhelmed with grief.

How can a teenage girl compare? Yes, she may appear to have everything. But aren’t humans’ more than just molecules and proteins? Don’t we all have dreams and desires of our own? What is it that makes us human? Our relationships, our goals, our ability to connect with one another. How would you feel to have these vital components torn away from you? No, it is not the equivalent of the man next door whose wife has just died. But that does not mean that she does not deserve your attention and your respect. You may have lived through the battles of the emergency department, the grievances of the families, the diagnosis’s of tumours to children barely in their teens. But she has not.

Look at her, sitting on the bed, her head bent over her lightly covered shoulders. Look at her, fingers fidgeting with the bed sheets, unsure what to touch or who to speak to. She is scared. She is in a new place. There are bright lights glaring down upon her, strangers rushing past her, eerie machines beeping at her. And inside her mind, the battle is continuing to rage. Look at the scars glistening upon her skin as she cowers in a blanket, trying to hide her wounds from the world. Aren’t those battle scars as well?

Imagine how it feels to have a mass of doctors suddenly gathering around your bed, all looking upon you with pity. Do you realise how exposed it can feel to be probed with such personal questions? The intricacies of your mind held open for a stranger to dissect.

‘Do you have any plans to end your life?
What methods have you thought about?’

She needs a friend. She needs someone to take her hand and ask her how she is feeling. Forget the Fluoxetine, the charts filled with drug doses. It is not a prescription pad that she needs. She needs a human touch.

I know she cannot hear you as you make your curt remarks. I know you will walk towards her filled with smiles and concerning eyes. I have seen that gentle handshake that you have mastered over the years, the slight pitch in your voice as you gently prod your questions. There is no doubt that you have a bedside manner. And within one minute you are gone, the prescription chart left upon her bed for the nurse to dispatch the drugs. The girl still sits there, her posture unchanged, unsure if the conversation had taken place.

I know you are busy. I know you have a team of doctors to command, a list of patients to see, a hospital to run. Yes, I know you have sat through hours of exams, studied well into countless nights to get to where you are standing now. I have respect for the devotion you have put into your career.

But please do not forget that young girl. Please remember to hold your tongue the next time you see a teenage overdose. Yes, to you it is another statistic to keep record of, another prescription to fill out. But to that teen lying in the corner, throwing up the contents of her stomach? She wanted to die just two hours ago. Do you know how that feels? To feel hopelessness so deep, that the future is but one long tunnel, filled with uncertainties and fear. Do you know how it feels to hold a bottle of pills in your hand, staring longingly at the container, at the hope it contains inside?

Yes, she will be fine. She will be discharged within a few hours, another free bed to fill. But please, the next time you come across such despair in someone’s eyes, do just one thing; sit down on the bed beside them, and ask them how they are. Look into their eyes as they speak, and let your whole being be encapsulated by their story. Let them open up to you, with patience and empathy. If someone had done this to them before, do you think they would be in this position now?

Please, the next time you blurt out another cutting remark, a sneer at the cries for attention. Look across the room at your patient sitting there. Look at their posture, their body language, their eyes. Does this look like the sort of person who needs your judgement? Or does this look like someone who needs a listening ear?


Featured image:
Writing with Ink by urbanworkbench