Education & GovMedicinePersonal Development

Treat the Individual, not the Condition

William Spooner visited his local medical centre one day with complaints of heel pain. He saw two GPs that day. His usual GP took Mr. Spooner’s shoes off and examined his feet and his whole body and said “as much as I’d hate to say it, your weight plays a role and it’s something that we should focus on”. The next GP looked him in the eyes and said “take some panadol”. Which GP connected more with Mr. Spooner?

This classic example is very commonly seen in medical practices globally. Without generalising, a vast majority of health professionals fall into the trap of treating patients like their textbooks teach them to do so, which can lead to a weak or unhealthy doctor – patient relationship.

That’s not to blame health professionals, but communication and empathy are factors that strengthen this relationship and is often skimmed through university studies. So we arrive at the topic of emotional intelligence, which revolves around an individual’s ability to be aware of and to handle their own emotions as well as others’.

I believe a health professional with high emotional intelligence (EI), i.e. self – awareness, empathy, motivation and perseverance, compared to one with low EI will have better relationships with their patients, leading to better health outcomes. Rather than focusing solely on the medications and treatments as told by textbooks, health professionals should focus on improving their emotional intelligence in the same line as their treatment knowledge. This ability to build rapport and treat patients as individuals can be considered equally as important as the medications and treatments doctors prescribe.

We go through our everyday lives focussing on what we say to others, i.e. the words we articulate. Communication is more than words. Daniel Goleman’s ‘Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ’ is a good read that covers the importance of physical and verbal cues in a one – on – one conversation.

He believes that 60% of the signals and messages we send to another person is through body language, 30% through attitude and 10% through words. Therefore, if we focus solely on the words we say, that person will understand only roughly 10% of the true message we want to send to them, i.e. the treatment plan. Imagine sending these signals to a patient, it would likely confuse them. Health professionals can only say so much, but their attitude and motivation can be a major determining factor in a patient’s compliance and perseverance through what may be a mentally and physically draining situation.

While I’m still young and a student, I’ve learnt valuable lessons studying podiatry and educating patients about the importance of proper foot care. Put the medical textbooks aside (for now) and apply the following if you want to be more empathetic with your patients:

  1. Listen: Simple and easy? When we have been taught all along through university to treat conditions as they present, as textbooks teach us to do so, we forget this simple step that no textbook can teach. I’m a fan of post – it note reminders. Place a post – it note with the word ‘listen’ on your bathroom mirror and when you see this every morning, you’ll begin to surprise yourself about what this word really means.
  2. Watch how others interact: This can be done any day of the week. While on the train to work, listen to how two friends talk to each other. Is one more understanding than the other? If so, how? What physical or verbal cues can we pick up to take into our own interactions?
  3. Treat each patient like they’re family: If my mum or dad came to visit me as a podiatrist, I’d work hard to give them the utmost care and treatment I can possibly provide. If health professionals think about each patient like this, there is more of a tendency to focus on the emotional aspect of the consultation as well as the physical treatment provided.

EI is an important topic in the medical industry, and almost any industry, that current health professionals and medical students should focus on in their personal development. These lessons are only basic and we all know experience is the best teacher. If we apply these lessons to each experience from now, imagine how far our EI will go and the extent to which our patients improve physically and mentally.

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Luke Sassine

Luke Sassine

Luke Mario Sassine has a Bachelor of Health Science (Masters of Podiatric Medicine) and has a passion for the medical industry. His insights come from his extensive study, his experience with patients, his background in martial arts and real enthusiasm to improve the landscape of the Australian medical industry. He currently resides in Sydney, Australia.