What med school couldn’t teach me about the patient experience

Now I understand that some things you cannot truly comprehend until you experience them for yourself.

Editor’s note: This is an opinion piece; the views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

In late September last year, I was involved in an accident and suffered a third-degree burn injury to my calf. Being a student with Medicaid health insurance, I felt the rough tides of our health care system, moving through three different hospitals to finally get the care that I needed.

Although no patient experience is the same, the ordeal gave me insights into what my future patients may go through.

I was never really a patient before. Sure, I had a primary care physician who I saw for yearly check-ups and small hiccups in my health, but I have always been perfectly healthy. I had no idea what it felt like for the patients I saw on the med-surg floors.

From ED to ED to burn center

In the initial emergency department visit, my wound was diagnosed as a second-degree burn. I requested to be referred to the closest burn center and was discharged without actual follow-up. So I sought care at another institution.

At the second ED, I asked to be seen by a surgeon because I thought a surgeon must have more knowledge of burns. I looked through UpToDate and other resources, trying to refresh my memory on the classification of burn injuries. Mine seemed to meet the criteria for a third-degree burn.

After countless hours of waiting in the ED, I was finally referred to a burn center and given an appointment the following day.

Squeezing in questions

“You will need surgery tomorrow, so you’ll be hospitalized starting tonight,” the burn surgeon told me. I was in shock. This was the start of my three-week hospitalization, with three surgeries.

The post-surgery outpatient appointments were incredibly quick. I found myself always having to squeeze in questions at the end before the doctor rushed out of the room. I understood she was busy with a long list of patients to see. But as a patient, it made me feel unimportant.

“Do you have any questions for me?” As medical students, this was always the last thing we said during our doctoring practicals so the examiner could check the box on the grading sheet.

But it isn’t just a box-checking question. It opens the floor to the patient and shows that the physician has time for them. Most of my previous doctor’s appointments were annual check-ups. I didn’t have any questions, I was fine. But this was different. I felt vulnerable and needed answers about the details of my treatment.

Asking this simple question allows the patient to feel heard and cared for, even if the visit is short. Now I understand that some things you cannot truly comprehend until you experience them for yourself.

Now I better understand the immense responsibility that I will carry as a future physician, when I’ll be guiding patients through a complex health care system.

Related reading:

White coat skepticism: How I overcame it

He nearly failed medical school before rising to new heights

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