Sunday, December 6, 2020

Showing patients that we really care

Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, is said to have replied to a reporter who, seeing her looking exhausted, asked her simply, “Are you OK?”, by saying, “Thank you for asking.  Not many people have asked if I’m OK.”  She then went on to say that the new normal, with masks concealing faces, was forcing people to look into each other’s eyes, adding, “For the first time in a long time, as human beings we are really seeing one another.  Are we OK?  We will be.”

In this short exchange of words, she pinpointed two very significant areas of interest for five element acupuncturists.  She emphasized the importance of giving another person the chance to say honestly how they are feeling, and she is aware of how important eye contact is for every human interaction.  By chance this second point also illustrates what I wrote in my recent blog about the Metal element “Are we living in an age of Metal?    Both these examples illustrate something which should remain constantly at the forefront of our minds in our dealings with our patients, which is the importance of showing them that we are genuinely concerned to find out how they really feel.

Obviously Meghan Markle’s comments hit a nerve, because I have just read a reader’s letter in a newspaper in which the writer says, “Can I suggest that when you meet people who are grieving, you ask, “How are you today?”  My husband, who died from motor neurone disease in 2017, said this acknowledged that some days were better than others.”

In this context, I often recall the many times a health worker, be it a doctor, a nurse or a dentist, has offered me the standard greeting of “How are you?”, which I never know how to reply to.  Does he or she really want to know how I am, as I walk into the consulting room, and well before I have seated myself?   Are they, or are they not, expecting me to answer this question truthfully?  Surely not.  And yet the conventional greeting has already opened up a slight gulf between us, making it more difficult for me to say what I had come to say.  Every time I am greeted in this way I feel a tiny stab of disappointment, because I would like to answer genuinely, but realise that an honest answer is not being expected of me.  I only remember one occasion, which stood out so sharply because of its rarity, when a nurse unexpectedly said, “You hate being here, don’t you?”  This was a really welcome moment of appreciation of how acutely she had been observing me, and I can still recall the relief I felt at realising that at last somebody was interested enough in me to see beyond the conventional mask we all put on.  I always emphasize to my acupuncture students how important it is not to engage in this kind of idle chat as they greet their patients, but wait until they have settled themselves down and are composed enough to answer such a question honestly.  

We always say that the purpose of a good five element diagnosis is to help patients feel safe enough to remove their mask, and it is our eyes, those windows of the soul, which show our true selves the most clearly.  At this time of COVID 19,when the physical masks we all now have to wear hide all but our eyes, we are given a wealth of opportunity as we walk past people in the street to catch glimpses of the real people through their eyes.  We should take every opportunity to use these brief interactions to try and help us diagnose the messages the different elements are sending us, for each element will look out at the world in a different way.  Each encounter can then become a useful diagnostic lesson if we choose to use it for this.

What distinguishes a merely competent practitioner from a really good practitioner is the degree to which they are genuinely curious about every aspect of their patients’ lives.  I think that having a good memory is a blessing for any therapist, because our interest in building up a complex picture of our patients’ lives helps us establish close and lasting relationships to them, to the extent that not long ago I happened to meet a patient in the street after many years had passed, and could immediately recall that she had problems with one of her children.  It was fortunate for my future calling as five element acupuncturist that since childhood I have always been fascinated by human interactions, enjoying watching groups of people wherever they gather, so that although my memory for facts is not very good I can build up very clear pictures of my patients’ lives which stay with me for years.  That is a skill we could all usefully develop if we wish to help our patients.

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