'Eye-opening' Experience on the Other Side of the Hospital Bed

Sharon Worcester

March 29, 2022

The 5 days that she spent at her mother's bedside were eye-opening for an oncologist used to being on the other side of the clinician–patient relationship.

"As a physician, I thought I had a unique perspective of things that were done well — and things that were not," commented Pamela Kunz, MD.

Kunz, who was named the 2021 Woman Oncologist of the Year, is director of the Center for Gastrointestinal Cancers at Smilow Cancer Hospital and of the Yale Cancer Center, New Haven, Connecticut

But she was propelled into quite a different role when her mother was admitted to the hospital.

Her mom, who has trouble hearing, was easily confused by jargon and by "all of the people coming in and out with no introductions," she explained.

"She needed someone to translate what was going on because she didn't feel well," she added.

Seeing inpatient care through her mother's eyes was enlightening, and at times it was "shocking to be on the other side."

Physicians get used to "checking boxes, getting through the day," she said. "It's easy to "forget the human side."

"Seeing a loved one, sick, struggle through this — I just wished I had seen things done differently," added Kunz,

The experience prompted Kunz to share several "communication pearls" via Twitter. Her thread has since garnered thousands of "likes" and scores of comments and retweets.

She began the Twitter thread explaining what prompted her comments:

"I spent many hours last week observing the practice of medicine while sitting at my mom's hospital bedside and was reminded of some important communication pearls. Some musings…."

"1.  Introduce yourself by full name, role and team and have ID badges visible. It can get very confusing for [patients] and family members with the number of people in and out of rooms. E.g. 'My name is Dr. X. I'm the intern on the primary internal medicine team.'

2.  End your patient visit with a summary of the plan for the day.

3. Avoid medical jargon & speak slowly, clearly, and logically. Remember you are a teacher for your [patients] and their family.

4. Masks make it harder to hear, especially for [patients] with hearing loss (and they no longer have the aid of lip reading).

5. Many older [patients] get confused in the hospital. Repetition is a good thing.

6. Speak to a family member at least once per day to relay the plan.

7. Try to avoid last minute or surprise discharges — they make [patients] and family members anxious. Talk about discharge planning from day 1 and what milestones must occur prior to a safe discharge. 'In order for you to leave the hospital, X, Y, X must happen.'

8. Talk with your [patients] about something other than what brought them to the hospital (a tip I once learned from a wise mentor).

9.  When possible, sit at eye level with your patient (I love these stools from @YNHH).

10. Take time to listen."

Kunz closed with her golden rule: "Lastly, treat your patients how you would want your own family member treated."

Twitter user @BrunaPellini replied: "I love this, especially 'Treat your patients how you would want your own family member treated.' My mom and grandma always said that to me since I was a med student and this is definitely one of my core values."

Other clinicians shared similar experiences, and some added to Kunz's list.

"Agree entirely, love the list — and while none of us can always practice perfectly, my experiences with my own mother's illness taught me an enormous amount about communication," @hoperugo responded.

Twitter user @mariejacork added: "Everyone in healthcare please read … if you are lucky enough to not have had a loved on unwell in hospital, these may get forgotten. Having sat with my dad for a few days before he died a few years ago, I felt a lot of these and it changed my practice forever."

@bjcohenmd provided additional advice: "And use the dry erase board that should be in every room. Never start a medication without explaining it. Many docs will see the patient and then go to the computer, decide to order a med, but never go back to explain it."

Patients also shared experiences and offered suggestions.

"As a chronic pain patient I'd add — we know it's frustrating you can't cure us but PLEASE do not SIGH if we say something didn't work or [tell] us to be more positive. Just say 'I know this is very hard, I'm here to listen.' We don't expect a cure, we do expect to be believed," said  @ppenguinsmt. "It makes me feel like I'm causing distress to you if I say the pain has been unrelenting. I leave feeling worse…You may have heard 10 [people] in pain before me but this is MY only [appointment.]"

Twitter user @KatieCahoots added: "These are perfect. I wish doctors would do this not only in the hospital but in the doctor's office, as well. I would add one caveat: When you try not to use medical jargon don't dumb it down as though I don't know anything about science or haven't done any of my own research."

Kunz said she was taken aback but pleased by the response to her Tweet.

"It's an example of the human side of medicine so it resonates with physicians and with patients," she commented. Seeing through her mom's eyes how care was provided made her realize that medical training should include more emphasis on communication, including "real-time feedback to interns, residents, fellows, and students."

Yes, it takes time, and "we don't all have a lot of extra time," she acknowledged.

"But some of these elements don't take that much more time to do. They can help build trust and can, in the long run, actually save time if patients understand and family members feel engaged and like they are participants," she said. "I think a little time investment will go a long way."

In her case, she very much appreciated the one trainee who tried to call her and update her about her mother's care each afternoon. "I really valued that," she said.

Sharon Worcester is an award-winning medical journalist at MDedge News, part of the Medscape Professional Network. 

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