When people consider becoming healthcare providers, it’s sometimes the “big things” that they think of. Saving a child’s life. Groundbreaking research. Dramatic diagnoses.
But the truth is that for many of us, the part of medicine that is most satisfying is actually the “little things.” A patient’s shy smile when she learns she can play in Friday’s game. A new mom’s growing confidence. Getting a a referral for a patient fast, with just the right combination of phone calls and sweet-talking.
In this age of patient satisfaction surveys, relentless metrics, and widespread provider burnout, we can forget that for patients, it’s actually the little, human things that matter most to them, too.
I read a beautifully written narrative recently that brought this dynamic to life for me.
The author, Lisa Rubisch, a mom with a year-old baby, had a benign cyst in her uterus that she needed removed with surgery.
A person who was generally nervous with medical procedures, Rubisch felt especially vulnerable, since she had given birth to her young son not too long beforehand.
Once wheeled into the OR, Rubisch found that the team was playing Led Zeppelin on the overhead speakers. It was harsh, heavy music to her ears and unnerved her further.
“You don’t like Zeppelin?” a nurse asked, in his thick Queens accent. “Who do you like?”
I heard myself muttering the first band that came to mind: “The Beatles?”
Someone actually left the room in search of a Beatles CD but returned empty-handed.
“Well, I guess we should just call the whole thing off,” I said, laughing nervously.
They stood around me in awkward silence. I could see in their faces how much they wanted to soothe me; they were all trying so hard to be cheerful and upbeat, but the truth was, the show must go on.
Then, from somewhere behind me, outside my peripheral vision, a lone male voice started to sing. “In the town, where I was born… lived a ma-a-an who sailed to sea…”
He was slowly joined in chorus by the other surgeons, nurses, assistants and anesthesiologists, in what was possibly the strangest, sweetest, most tuneless version of Yellow Submarine ever to be sung. “…and he told us of his life in the la-a-and of submarines…”
The whole surgical team singing an off-key Beatles song was a “little thing.” A medically unimportant, human moment that struck Rubisch in a profound way. As she put it, “When placing your life in someone’s hands, you want to know that they are particularly skilled hands. You want the best surgeon that exists in the universe. But beyond skill, beyond technology, medicine and state-of-the-art equipment, the thing that you remember long after you’ve healed is human compassion.”
So ultimately, the “little things” aren’t so little.
Knowing your patient as a person and understanding the social and economic and personal context of their life allows you to create these moments of human compassion. We talk a lot about telemedicine-based healthcare collaboration as a tool that does big things: cuts costs, saves lives, and creates a new way of doing medicine. But the truth is that doing healthcare collaboration with telemedicine allows us to do the little things too: to care for patients in ways that are meaningful to them — and satisfying to us.