There are so many positive things that come with diversity in medicine, but the most invaluable element in my opinion is perspective.
This became clear to me during my first clerkship in medical school. I spent a month in the pediatric clinic for the health department. I was looking forward to the transition from classroom time to clinical care and arrived excited, eager and a little nervous.
My first day was spent with Dr. Jane, a very kind, gentle and intelligent doctor who was well-liked and respected by her patients and her coworkers. She was incredibly patient, a phenomenal listener, and effortlessly communicated with her patients. Dr. Jane loved to teach and kept me so engaged in the patient encounters that my nervous sweat stopped.
From hope and positivity to defensiveness and confusion
Near the end of the day, we saw a patient who was struggling with behavioral issues and had trouble focusing in school. Dr. Jane had a great rapport with the patient and his mother. They had open communication and mutual respect. Toward the end of the encounter, Dr. Jane mentioned that she could send a social worker to their home to get a better understanding of the patient’s behavior and environment.
Almost instantly the open communication and respect left the room. The positivity and hope were sucked out; defensiveness and confusion rushed in. It wasn’t long before the mother politely rushed out of the office and far away from us.
‘My stomach sank’
I am not sure if Dr. Jane noticed the change. I noticed because, just like the patient’s mother, I too had cringed from just hearing the term “social worker.” My heart rate crept up, my stomach sank, and I got all sweaty again. Privately, I relived my own experience with social workers.
When I was about 6 years old, I was taken from my home by child protective services. It is an experience that I will never wipe from my memory and the source of my negative association with the term “social worker.”
Throughout the month, Dr. Jane would offer social worker home visits to several families. I could tell the parents were afraid this would result in their child being taken from them. Every time, the vibe would change, the mom would rush out, and I would sweat.
On my last day, Dr. Jane asked me if there was anything I thought she could do better as a physician.
Sharing my perspective
In my head I was thinking, “This must be a trap. If I say anything, she is going to fail me and I will be kicked out of medical school. But if I don’t say anything, she might not ever know that people from my community are scared of social workers coming to their home.”
In the end I told her what I thought her patients were thinking when she offered to have social workers come to their homes. I explained the root of those fears. She was very receptive to what I had to say and appreciative that I shared my perspective with her. And she didn’t fail me after all.
This is just one example of the benefit of diversity in medicine. People with diverse backgrounds and experiences can positively influence doctor-patient relationships and ultimately improve outcomes for those in their care.
One of the most challenging things in life is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and walking the path that led them to their perspective. While no person can walk every path, having people around to help point you in the right direction makes it easier.