AS health care professionals, particularly in hospitals, we are faced with human suffering every single day as our patients, many unwell and some dying, seek help.
We are also often faced with angry, confused and grieving family members.
From the first day of internship, we have to deal with these different emotions in our own way, while grappling with our own sense of identity. At the same time we must remain professional, compassionate and deliver quality care.
It is not an easy task. Some of us manage to cope through physical activity, or emotional relief via extracurricular functions. Others develop defence mechanisms, which may not always be healthy.
However, over time, as we become more experienced, we smooth out this initial emotional rollercoaster and wrap ourselves in a protective shell so we do not become overwhelmed by the tragedies we encounter.
After all, we can only cry so much, for so many days.
We “learn to deal with it”, often emulating our senior colleagues.
Another way of coping with the emotion and stress of health care — something all clinicians face at some time in their career — is by increasing our workload, so we focus on “doing things to patients” rather than “caring for people”, with the added pressure of ensuring we keep relationships on a professional level.
This hardened exterior can, unfortunately, become maladaptive, leading to a perception by the very ones we are meant to be serving that we, the caregivers, no longer care.
Health care professionals really do care but, because of the need to keep emotionally intact, they develop a certain tolerance to the pain and suffering they see every day — not intentionally, but as a psychological defence — and this, unconsciously, comes out in their behaviour.
Perhaps, we should reflect on and be conscious of the chances of this happening to us. As doctors, we should lead the need for change among all professionals in health care.
I am not suggesting that we start becoming emotionally involved with patients and cross professional boundaries with families. I am saying we should start to walk in the shoes of our patients once in a while, to develop not just sympathy but some level of empathy.
In the busyness of our day we should always have time to show our patients we do care. It won’t cost us much — maybe a quick smile, a caring touch, an extra minute to ask how they are going — rather than just focusing on their disease or illness.
In this way, we can bring care back to health care and humanity back to hospitals.
Professor Erwin Loh is the chief medical officer at Monash Health, Victoria.