Coming from a psychology background, I found myself quite shocked almost two decades ago when I began working in hospitals and outpatient medical clinics. Not only was it jarring that everyone around me literally moved so much faster than I did, but it was equally unsettling that when talking with a physician, I found that I had about 20 seconds to say what was on my mind before being interrupted!
Indeed, some research has found that patients have an average of 18 seconds to speak before a physician interrupts with a closed ended question. Interruptions are just part of the problem in medicine, however. Some physicians have trouble dealing with emotions when talking with patients. A study in Canada found that doctors failed an empathy test in 90% of cases. Though this is only one example and many physicians are indeed empathic toward patients, the author of the study points out that physicians have difficulty acknowledging emotions.
Patients have reported to me over the years that once they became tearful their physician changed the subject or ended the meeting abruptly! Many modern medicine clinicians are cut off from emotions.
This may not be a bad thing.
Though it is a reasonable wish that the people we entrust to take care of our bodies should also take care of our minds, this may not be possible and should not be taken personally. In fact, some have made the case that detachment from emotions among physicians serves the purpose of allowing these clinicians to continue to do their work every day. The authors of Clinical Counselling in Medical Settings argue that the kind of compartmentalization in medicine that occurs can be adaptive; doctors can be relatively detached from feelings and those of us trained in psychology can take care of emotional needs.
Doctor disconnection has advantages. When doctors are somewhat removed they can evaluate patients objectively and it is easier to provide intrusive and often painful medical procedures. Think about if your surgeon were overly concerned about cutting you! She or he may not be able to focus on getting the procedure right if they are consumed with worry.
Additionally, there are a lot of traumatic experiences that occur in medical practice: young people hit with random illness, car accidents, victims of crime who sustain physical injury and so on. These traumas, which are witnessed everyday by often (initially) young physicians or physicians in training can drain and frighten even the most robust young doctor. At some point, becoming relatively disengaged serves a valuable survival instinct in the face of dealing with traumatic events.
Maybe it is just too much to ask that doctors do everything. After all, in our personal lives, we don’t expect any one person to have it all. We have friends who are walking partners, friends in our book group, associates from religious activities, and maybe friends that we can talk with about emotional aspects of our lives. In other words, rarely do we find one friend who can meet all of our needs. It may not be realistic to think we can find a physician who can do it all.
The wish that our medical clinicians can provide everything for us is normal and has roots in the needs we had of our parents when we were young. When important needs have not been met in childhood we may be vulnerable to expecting more from authority figures. Though this is not news to many psychologically minded people, there does seem to be something quite compelling about wanting to get our needs met from physicians when our bodies are suffering. In other words, if our bodies are failing, we really need and want doctors to be the ultimate healers. Sadly, this is often not realistic.
So, what can you do? Try to remember that most doctors are capable individuals that want to help. If they are not always emotionally available, remind yourself that you can get expressive needs met from others. A doctor that is “good enough” at taking care of your body and listening to physical concerns can often suffice. Since no one person meets all of our needs elsewhere in life, it might be a waste of energy to expect that doctors can.