The COVID-19 crisis has reminded all seven billion people on Earth of the crucial importance of health. More than ever, we are collectively expressing our gratitude for the amazing work of medical professionals on the front line. In order to appreciate their daily efforts to save lives and help patients, not only during this time of crisis but in the future as well, we need to understand the value of being a doctor or nurse.
What do you expect when you get sick?
Regardless of education, wealth, or origin, people experience the same emotions. We are happy when things go well, sad or scared when our health and life are threatened. Recognizing the first symptoms of illness is like entering an unknown landscape. Overwhelmed by a feeling of imbalance, all we want is to find a way back to normal.
For some, even a small cold can arouse anxiety, while others are able to accept even the worst prognosis in the course of a disease. We all are different when we are sick and search for help, and we behave differently. Some patients only go to the doctor in the terminal stage of cancer, because they are afraid to learn the truth. Others want to know what’s wrong immediately, so they dive into the Internet looking for answers.
A disease does not trigger the same behavioral mechanisms in everyone, but is a mirror of culture, beliefs, values and experiences that we bring to the doctor’s office together with our illness. But the fact is that nobody – neither doctor nor nurse – can meet a patient’s emotional needs. The doctor’s role is to treat patients using all possible means and available knowledge and to consult with them with full empathy and support. But some feelings are so private that no doctor or nurse can see them.
Medicine’s superpower and its limits
Not all patients can be cured. The significant advances in medicines driven by antibiotics, genetics, precise diagnostics, and therapeutics provide new capabilities for fighting disease. According to WHO, cancer was responsible for 9.6 million deaths in 2018. Cardiovascular diseases together cause around 17.9 million deaths annually worldwide. The International Classification of Diseases, Ninth Revision, Clinical Modification (ICD-9-CM) consists of about 13,000 codes. Some of these are terminal diseases for which there are no treatment options.
Every disease can vary in its details and symptoms. Nobody, regardless of experience, can recognize them all at first glance. Even doctors equipped with the most modern medical technologies do not have superpowers. Furthermore, time limitations must be considered, as well as administrative regulations and reimbursement policies. In this context, collisions of patient vulnerability with the healthcare system are inevitable. Besides, doctors have a right to be wrong – to make mistakes, like we all do. Doctors follow facts, best practices, science, and the latest studies and can successfully treat more and more diseases. Nevertheless, their capabilities are also limited.
A highly complex and demanding profession
Healing people is not like repairing a vehicle. Although medicine is an applied science, sometimes it’s not only knowledge that helps, but human-to-human interaction – a dose of hope, motivation, and empowerment. This is the social part of being a doctor. While the art of treatment can be mastered during medical studies, the art of communication is different for each patient. Every day doctors deal with several dozen diverse cases – patients’ lives, fears and dreams. They share good news, but also bad news.
Passing on news about a terminal illness does not come easily, even after years in practice. While the primary role of a doctor or nurse is to provide medical services, they deal with people. And they too feel afraid and sad, defeat diseases or are defeated by them. Hours spent making critical decisions about human lives are a burden most of us can’t even imagine. The 2018 Survey of America’s Physicians Practice Patterns and Perspectives reported that 78% of physicians experience burnout. While we expect support, we should also understand and respect the doctor’s job.
Staff shortages in healthcare and your responsibility
The COVID-19 crisis leaves no doubt: the capacity of healthcare is limited. What’s more, even without the coronavirus, healthcare systems are already overstretched in many countries. According to the Global Strategy on Human Resources for Health: Workforce 2030 by WHO, the world will be short 9.9 million healthcare workers by 2030. To ensure high-quality care for the world’s growing population and aging societies, healthcare in the future will have to undergo significant changes.
Shortages of physicians, nurses, and midwives can be alleviated by harnessing new technologies, re-balancing healthcare tasks, developing sustainable care models, or strengthening medical education. But it is also our joint responsibility to “flatten the curve” of the rapidly rising demand for medical services. We need to stop thinking of our health as something that we can exploit until it breaks, and then get it fixed at the doctor’s office. At least 80% of cases of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes could be avoided by eliminating risk factors such as a lack of physical activity or an unhealthy diet. Our behavior influences our healthcare system. Even now, small lifestyle changes can save healthcare resources so we can get the appropriate care when we need it.
A relationship based on trust and cooperation
Medical advice provided by a doctor is a two-way transaction. The physician diagnoses and recognizes the problem, and then initiates the treatment by prescribing medicine and giving recommendations. It should be stressed that these are suggestions, not commands. How they are applied depends on the patient. Nobody controls the patient’s adherence to the doctor’s recommendations. This means that trust is critical. If the patient and doctor treat each other as partners, the chances of a quick recovery increase.
In this honest and transparent relationship, both sides are equal – the patient and doctor form one team playing to the same goal. The patient has a right to research symptoms before visiting the doctor, to ask questions, and to express doubts. This is an integral part of the transaction taking place at the doctor’s office, recently referred to as “patient empowerment.” But the patient has responsibilities as well. You are the co-creator of your own health. No doctor can heal you if you don’t cooperate.
Remember: a doctor is only a human being
Half of the world’s population lacks access to essential health services. One hundred million are driven into extreme poverty by health expenses. On the other hand, many patients in the developed world report that they feel the absence of the human touch in bureaucratic healthcare systems. Those in areas with universal health coverage can sleep peacefully – they and their families always get help when they need it. In this situation, it is easy to forget what a privilege that is.
Although each country faces its own challenges, healthcare around the world has one thing in common: the engagement and empathy of doctors and nurses, regardless of working conditions and equipment. Not only during the COVID-19 pandemic, but every single day they are on the front line to bring us help and fight for every single human life. Let’s start recognizing and appreciating this by changing our point of view and taking more responsibility for our own health.
Graphics: Aga Więckowska
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