Through a Patient’s Eyes: Physicians Reflect on Personal Illness

John Kugler, MD, takes a turn as a patient during a symposium demonstration

Although we prioritize medical education at the patient bedside, learning can occur in a variety of ways—and not always in a formal setting. In fact, a few recently published articles shed light on how physicians’ own experiences with illness offered lessons on the importance of humanity, connection and comfort.

In a piece for Medpage Today’s KevinMD, University of Texas Medical Branch medical student Leonard Wang reflects on how the time he spent as a patient helped shape his attitude toward care. He recalls when he developed an unusual infection that lasted several weeks: “Being solely viewed as an ‘interesting presentation of the disease’ was invalidating to my experience in the sick role. I felt more like a diseased patient than a patient with a disease. For infectious disease physicians, my disease was more important than me.” During a later stint as a patient in the emergency room, he realized the importance of clinical empathy and compassionate care, learning that as a physician, he must always prioritize his patients’ humanity. “My personal periods of illness have taught me how nurturing doctor-patient relationships is critical to improving patient outcomes and experiences,” he says.

Kavita Jackson, MD, an emergency room physician at Holy Cross Health in Maryland, describes her encounter with breast cancer during COVID-19 as a professionally—and personally—grounding experience. She eventually opted to take medical leave from work while undergoing treatment and struggled with the accompanying loss of purpose and identity. When she returned more than a year later, she felt revitalized. “I joined the workforce restored and refocused on what brought me to medicine in the first place — improving the lives of patients,” she says, explaining that she rediscovered the joy of patient interactions. “Albeit in the ER our encounters can be brief, I more readily sense my patient’s concerns, as well as how to alleviate them, beyond just labs and imaging tests. Connecting with my patients in this way feels mutually healing.”

For Cedars-Sinai Medical Center director Zeke Triana, personal illness experience shaped his approach to hospital room design—one that combines practicality with a calming environment. “One aspect that was really important to me when I was a patient, was having a view,” he explained. “And in my particular case, I had a view of a tree. It was nature, and it really helped calm me down. My blood pressure improved and it was just having something to focus on other than being in the room.” Because of his desire to give that sense of peace back to patients, he sought to incorporate views of nature and artwork in each of the spaces. Ultimately, he says, a peaceful environment can promote a better patient experience, which is fundamental to healing.

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