4. The “chief complaint” given at check-in can change dramatically before check-out. Patients are not always comfortable discussing the intimate details of their lives and bodies with staff members who see them before I do. I can certainly appreciate and respect this.

If you are too focused on the “chief complaint,” you may miss or gloss over the real reason for the visit. Patients will lead you to the problem and correct diagnosis — but again, listening is essential.

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5. Patients remember things you may not always remember, such as how you treated them in the past or how you helped them feel better when they were feeling badly. So much of what doctors do is on “autopilot.” We’re trained to take care of people and that’s what we do. And we do it over and over again, multiple times a day, nearly every day. But a patient will remember if you took the time to care about them.

6. Not all patients will be doctors, but eventually, all doctors will be patients. Experiencing the other side of the equation — even, if only occasionally, as the patient — has made me much more compassionate and empathic toward my patients.

Doctors are scary to many patients. After all, doctors worked on and dissected corpses in medical school, and have seen blood, guts, and gore aplenty. They deal daily with urine, stool, and sputum samples, and have touched, felt, and appreciated all kinds of disease – from simple strep throat to the patient in the throes of death.

Doctors can even elicit fear in other trained medical professionals. By signing on as a patient, you are, in effect, making yourself even more vulnerable. You’re taking off the mask, stripping down to your skivvies, and trusting the doctor to do what’s in your best interest.

My patients have taught me to be less scary. I sit down and talk with each of them; not in a heavy-handed or domineering way. I stay down to earth, and even make fun of big medical words like “idiopathic.”

I try to make my patients laugh whenever possible. And I try to make them see that despite my white coat and badge labeling me as “physician,” I really am no different than they are — I’ve just had a few more years in school, perhaps, but I’m still very much a student of the human condition. I realize there are many things about life and medicine that I will always be hard-pressed to fathom.

But at the end of the day, I can rest assured that despite my relative ignorance, my patients will teach me everything I need to know.

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