Language matters. The words we choose can have far-reaching impact on those we interact with. This is arguably more true in medicine than in any other field.
Ryan Madanick wrote a recent blog post on the use of descriptor terms used by physicians in patient’s charts. He felt that the use of phrases like “is a very pleasant 52 y/o woman” or “is an unfortunate 16 y/o boy” is inappropriate. I agree. However, in response to this post one reader commented that he felt Dr. Madanick was nit-picking. He isn’t.
When I see such comments in colleagues’ note I wince. I was taught well by attending physicians who appreciated the power of language. I was taught to leave judgements like “pleasant” and “unfortunate” out of my notes. I was even taught not to use the ubiquitous term “complains of “or complaining of” (as in Mrs. Jones is a 43 y/o woman who complains of stomach pain”). When I was a medical student I had a trauma surgery rotation. The attending during that time was a wonderfully dynamic and caring man. One morning he brought his wife to rounds to listen in (this was pre-HIPAA). Afterwards he asked her what she thought of the experience. She was outraged. Outraged by our use of language. The patients who needed us most were “unfortunate”, “demanding” and “complaining”. Those we liked were “pleasant” and “stoic”. Those we did not were “difficult”. She asked how pleasant, fortunate and stoic we would each be if we were stuck in the trauma unit after a car accident left us unable to walk or, a bullet to the chest left us struggling to breathe pain-free? She volunteered that it was likely we would all be pretty darned demanding and complaining.
These words aren’t only judgmental and fault-finding, they are dangerous. Dangerous in their tendency to narrow our thinking. I had an experience early on that made this point loud and clear to me. Before seeing a patient one night I was handed the chart by a nurse who asked if I knew the child. I did not. She went on to tell me how difficult the parents were and how the kid was a “frequent-flier”. I glanced at the chart before seeing the child and read a few notes all with comments about this “unfortunate” child and her demanding parents. Several days later I learned that after seeing me, and returning to another physician she eventually presented to the ED in extremis. I sat down alone and went back over my visit. The only error I could find in my care was one of perspective. I entered her room biased. Biased by descriptive words used by the nurse and found in her chart that should not have been used. Did I miss her diagnosis because she was in my office too early in the disease process? Or did I miss it because I was viewing her as a complaining frequent-flier with difficult parents?
When we enter into care for a patient we need to approach them as if they are a tree of possibilities. The choices of diagnosis and the decisions around care should be narrowed not by our own bias and judgment but by careful medical thought. To speak of our patient’s with critical descriptors is not only rude but it is medically dangerous; doing so hurts them, and leaves us at risk as well.
I am having a bit of a free association sort of rainy Sunday. Funny about our minds isn’t it? The way we can unconsciously shift through the bits and pieces of what we read or hear during the week to come up with a theme of sorts. What follows is the intersection of learning about the great dance choreographer Twyla Tharp, the painter Caravaggio and thinking about a few failed interactions I have had with patients through the years.
Twyla Tharp explains in her book “The Creative Habit” that she prefers to divide people in her world into two distinct categories: acceptable or not, good or evil, “committed or missing in action”. While I find the book well-written and find myself inspired by her advice, I was bothered by these comments. I recognize that for her this commitment to embracing the extremes rather than the grey zones is artistically motivational but for me, it grates against my own approach to people. I prefer to work in a grey zone embracing the nuances of the personalities I find around me.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was an Italian Baroque painter in the late 16th century. He is known for dramatic, dark, richly and realistically depicted paintings of an often religious theme. He is also known for having been a murderer. Good (artist), evil (killer) and yet, to view him fully as one of these extremes we would miss the other side to his story and miss the influence these complex components of his persona have on each other. We would make an error of judgment.
As doctors, we give our best care and make our best diagnoses when our minds are open. I remember a professor in medical school telling me to begin my care for every patient by imagining that the patient’s illness was a tree that I stood at the foot of. A tree full of possibilities. As I tried to figure out their diagnosis I was to consider climbing along a branch chosen after a pruning of other possibilities by listening to their history. The physical exam would allow a deeper cut of the choices, lab tests, xrays and time allowing me if fortunate, to end up on the right twig with the right diagnosis.
I read a blog post today about errors made when “hysterical” E.R. patients’ complaints are dismissed. Someone loudly and dramatically requesting that they want a certain pain medication in a busy E.R. does tend to get ignored or, written off by the doctors and nurses who care for them. These patients are judged rather than treated in the grey zone of acceptance and this judging can lead to medical errors. This brought me back to two times in the past when such bias crept into my patient care. In both cases I was “warned” before entering the exam room that the patient or parent was difficult in some way causing me to walk into the room seeing a tree with already pruned branches. And indeed, I ended up on the wrong twig at the end of the visit.
Twyla Tharp is a supremely talented artist whose approach to slotting people into good or bad fails me both creatively and humanistically. Caravaggio was a troubled man with a gift; art influenced by his turmoil or, a man of grey shades. Patient care is best done with a clear eye towards the complexity of human nature.