What Healthcare Providers Learn from Their Patients

When you go to an appointment with your healthcare provider, what do you expect? Information. Discussion. Compassion. Maybe a plan. And for good measure, a joke or two? That’s what I expect, anyway, when things are going well. That combination definitely shifts if things aren’t going well with my health. Then I expect to learn facts, offered with confidence and calm direction from my healthcare provider. Maybe the same goes for you. But overall, patients expect to learn something from their healthcare provider. It’s what we’re here for.

In my fifteen years as a clinical genetic counselor, I offered plenty of information to my patients and their families. As Eve Mart explained in her post, she learned a lot from being ill – not just about hereditary breast cancer, but about life in general.

My favorite genetic counseling sessions were the ones where I took a back seat and did less of the talking than my patients. Sure, I got the facts across that they needed to know. That’s why they came to see me, so I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t. We discussed the genetics, statistics, options, pros/cons of genetic testing, family dynamics, emotional implications… but then, I’d sit back and listen. And that’s where I learned from my patients. Some of these life lessons are things I call upon today.

1)We underestimate how much we can handle – plenty of families I saw had many things piled on their plates. Sometimes, the healthcare aspect was only one part of what they were dealing with. They may also have been handling taking care of ill family members, the loss of a job, or difficulties with personal relationships. Yet I watched many of them tackle these kinds of issues with grace. How did they do it? I would often hear, “I didn’t know what I could handle until I was in the situation. You can do more than you think.” 

2)Tackle things in bite-sized pieces – sometimes I try to solve problems all at once and it doesn’t go well. I learned from families that handling things in baby steps is often the way to go. I actually started using this as a strategy for families where I’d first tell them about a diagnosis of hereditary cancer. Did they have to understand everything at once? No, but we could start with the basics and go from there. The rest would follow.

3)Resiliency is a skill – I watched countless families impacted by hereditary cancer and other genetic conditions hear difficult news, dust themselves off, and move forward. It didn’t happen as simply as that sounds, of course, but they did get on the other side of it by working through it. I actually needed to cultivate similar skills to be able to bring my best self to every family I counseled, every day. I’m still working on this one, but taking tips from my patients has helped me immensely.

4)Taking care of yourself helps you take care of others – this one relates to #3. Learning that you or your family member has hereditary cancer changes everything. You can quickly spend all your energy helping others, but I learned from families (and flight attendants) that if you don’t put your “oxygen bag” on first, you can’t really help others.

5)Don’t assume you know how someone will feel or react – plenty of patients surprised me with their reactions to good and bad news. Ultimately, I learned to stop predicting. You just never know how it’s going to go, and it’s best to wait and see. An open mind helps keep communication and dialogue open.

In my opinion, the best relationships are the ones in which we learn from each other, and no one has the upper hand. These are just five examples of how I’ve learned from my patients, but I’ve filed away plenty of other mental lessons. And since I’m a foodie, I’ve also gathered plenty of amazing recipes, cooking tips and restaurant recommendations that families have also shared with me!

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