An episode of the sitcom, “The Golden Girls” demonstrated what a lack of compassion can do to a patient. Dorothy, one of the characters, was feeling very sick. One doctor dismissed her symptoms as stress related to old age. Dorothy went to another doctor who diagnosed her as having chronic fatigue syndrome and she was able to finally get treatment. One day she ran into the doctor that dismissed her symptoms and she let him have it. (You can see how the confrontation went by clicking here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kdXNNfLWkUI )
Of course, most eye doctors aren’t as dismissive as the doctor in “The Golden Girls”. Still, it is important to keep in mind the importance of compassion. Unfortunately, healthcare has become more about delivering a service as opposed to “caring” for people. A 2012 study reported in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that 56 percent of physicians said that they didn’t have time to be compassionate. In addition, many surveys show that half of Americans feel that healthcare providers are not compassionate.
Why be compassionate? The idea of losing vision is a scary thought. Imagine if you have to deal with a condition like glaucoma, macular degeneration or diabetic retinopathy. When vision is diminished, a person has limited ability to read, drive, walk, watch television. As each of these activities become limited and then eliminated, the patient becomes more isolated. Imagine how you would feel if your vision was slowly fading away. You wouldn’t exactly be looking on the “bright side”. (No pun intended.)
Still, compassion isn’t just something that makes the patient feel good. It helps the care providers as well. Many studies have shown that being compassionate lowers burnout among healthcare workers. Less burnout means less turnover. Less turnover means that patients benefit from having long term employees providing their care. Another good thing about compassion is that patients equate compassion with competence. In other words, they think that the doctor is a great doctor, as well as a great person.
Of course, in addition to feeling compassion for your patients, you also need to treat their eye and visual conditions. So how do you bring together the compassion and the treatment? Start with education. Take the time to talk to the patient about vision care. From little things such as how to properly care for contacts lenses to the importance of regular visits for glaucoma care (even there has been no change in vision). Being too technical/scientific can lead to patients feeling less cared for and more like something in an assembly line. Doing this isn’t just compassionate, it is also empowering since you are giving the patient valuable information that will help them maintain optimal vision.
What if the patient’s treatment options have been exhausted? How can you be compassionate then? Believe it or not, referring that person to low vision or another type of specialist that can help that person get the right kind of care is a huge step. You aren’t just saying “Oh well, there’s nothing more I can do. Thanks for being a patient.” There is no shame in saying “Everything medical that can be done has been done. It is time to do something else and here is an option for you.” That is an example of compassion because you are offering a way that can help the patient make the most of his or her functional vision. If that isn’t enough of a reason to be compassionate, just think if that doctor in “The Golden Girls” was willing to admit his limits and refer Dorothy to someone else. She would have been thanking him in the restaurant and even treating him to dinner.
Free meals notwithstanding, while there are limits to what modern medicine can do for people, it is never a waste to treat people with compassion, since it puts the ‘care’ back in healthcare.