When we are trained as students, we are trained to present a ‘caring’ front to patients, to be seen to be ‘caring’ and to be ‘caring’. But we are not really taught what care is…. I recall being told to show sympathy and empathy to people in their situation, told to say ‘the right thing’ to express ‘concern’ which made me profoundly exhausted and did not hold the person I was with in equalness. But sympathy and empathy are not care. They are reactions to care.
The sort of people who do medicine are on the whole innately ‘caring’. It is a quality that we can all feel.
I recall the first day of medical school and the first years of medicine being so impressed at how interested my colleagues were in people, about understanding people and about caring for the people with illnesses and disease who came to visit us and teach us about health, illness and disease. They inspired me. I like many others found it quite overwhelming to see the vast extent of human suffering and distress, and did not know how to handle that with my deeply caring nature. I felt that I needed to be able to fix everyone and take away all of their suffering. That was a big burden to carry, and one that I know many doctors do.
I then watched many of these same caring people, who were so interested in people, move away from people oriented professions in medicine, seemingly suffering ‘caring’ or ‘compassion’ fatigue, finding it overwhelming to spend so much time with sick people.
I have spoken to several colleagues and read many shared stories where people have either left medicine for ‘survival’ reasons, or chosen professions where there is less contact and less ongoing ‘care’ for people as a survival thing. It is well known that the burnout rate is far less in professions where there is less ‘patient’ contact.
This is disturbing and a shame, because medicine is about people, and if we cannot be with people without getting exhausted or overwhelmed then there is a real issue.
If we are not taught how to be with people in a way that does not exhaust or overwhelm us, given that everything about medicine is about people, then we are missing something fundamental in our medical training.