In my last post, I said that good doctors learn from their patients. That may be one reason why we say we practice medicine. And I guess patients do have to be patient – waiting for a young doctor to practice on them until they get good at it.
We’re just lucky that no one asks why we get paid to just practice.
Now don’t take that to mean that older docs are better or safer than rookie physicians. The most dangerous physician – whether young or old – is one who is overconfident. We can make mistakes if we step beyond our scope of practice, if we don’t recognize and respect our personal limitations, if we stop listening, and if we jump to conclusions.
Both inexperienced and jaded physicians may assume that a patient’s symptoms are due to the most common diagnosis. They may jump to a quick diagnosis even if the signs and symptoms don’t quite match.
Physicians are more likely to do this when rushing from patient to patient in a busy ER or clinic.
An astute physician will listen to his intuition and maintain a broad differential diagnosis. When symptoms don’t quite fit, he will ask more questions.
When I teach hand washing technique to 1st year medical students (Yes. We now teach this in med school.), I stress the importance of taking the time to disinfect effectively. I advise them to wash their hands mindfully and ritually, closing with the patient they have just seen – and making sure there are no loose ends, unanswered or unasked questions or pieces that do not fit – before preparing to focus fully and mindfully with the next patient.
If you find that your physician may have rushed to make your diagnosis, you can open her mind by asking, “What’s the worst thing it could be?” and “What else could it be?”
These questions force physicians to pause and look at all the information again, reformulating a broader differential diagnosis of all the possibilities, including the less probable but more serious.
I continue to learn from my patients as they learn from their experiences and relationships. And what I learn from them enriches my care of other patients.
Real life teaches grownups in ways much different from school or practice. In life, lessons come after the tests. We learn by failing. We succeed by first falling.
In real life, we may not have to repeat a grade, but we have to repeat our lessons until we have learned them.
As we grow older, gain knowledge from experience and grow wiser, the more we recognize how little we know. As teens and young adults, we may think we know a lot more than our parents but as we face the challenges of independence and parenthood, we may better recognize their wisdom.
May you never believe that you are too old to learn something new. Even if you become forgetful, you will have to relearn what you used to know.