Researchers from Ghent University in Belgium took forty men and women (seventeen men and twenty three women) – none of whom were health professionals – and showed them photos of six different patients labeled two each with negative traits (e.g. egoistical, hypocritical, or arrogant), neutral traits (e.g. reserved, or conventional), or positive traits (e.g. faithful, honest, or friendly). After viewing the photos, participants watched short videos of the same six patients undergoing a standard physiotherapy assessment for shoulder pain. Then they were asked to rate the level of pain the patients were experiencing while undergoing the assessment.
Here’s where it gets interesting. If two patients in the study had identical levels of shoulder pain, the study participants concluded that the patient with the positive attitude had worse pain than the one with the bad attitude. In other words, if you had pain and had a nice manner, your pain was taken seriously. If you had the same amount of pain and you weren’t deemed “likeable,” your pain was more likely to be ignored or underrated.
A number of years ago, Dr. Jerome Groopman published a wonderful book for the benefit of patients and their physicians, entitled How Doctors Think. It is an excellent description, illustrated by anecdotes, of the cognitive processes by which doctors arrive at diagnoses, and the pitfalls that are inherent in such calculations owing to the inherent strengths and weaknesses of human thought processes. For example, our tendency to consider conditions that we have seen recently, or those for which can easily imagine examples, is one habit discussed in some depth. It is a fascinating read (or in my case, listen, as I heard it on a CD in my car over the course of a couple of weeks.)
So Dr. Groopman has exposed well how doctors think. But how often do we reveal just what we are thinking? No more often, in my opinion, than we reveal our inner thoughts to friends and relatives in our personal lives – and in fact, considerably less often if we value our professional success. We occasionally let slip our attitudes in a moment of carelessness, a gesture, or the infrequent loss of temper. But for the most part, we try to embody the ideal of “equanimitas” that was advocated by one of our icons of modern medicine, the great doctor William Osler. There have been many learned treatises on this quality as to its benefits to a physician and his patients, and I have little of great insight to add on that topic.
But wouldn’t it be nice to occasionally allow ourselves to express what we really think? I always enjoy arriving home – usually somewhat later than I promised – to relate some of the triumphs and tragedies of the battles of the day. And this, of course, is when I get to say what I really think. It has occurred to me that I might even collect enough material to publish my own book, What Doctors Think.
My wife suggested an alternative or a sequel entitled Do Doctors Think?
I am choosing to ignore the suggestion for the purposes of this post.