Curiosity and the Practice of Medicine
“Curiosity is the genesis of empathy,” were the astute words in my weekly email from writer Jeannine Ouellette. I'm taking a course from her on lyrical essay writing and so appreciate all the gems she has sprinkled into her teachings, gems I can easily put into my pocket as I head into the hospital to take care of patients.
And speaking of gems, I just finished working with the most delightful medical student, a young woman who in some ways reminded me of myself a half century ago. Teaching her rekindled my love of medicine, my passion for learning, and my delight at examining patients. She was the most curious student I have worked with, consistently and authentically curious about our patients, their diagnoses, and the underlying science. She challenged me to dust off my thinking cap and dig way back into the recesses of my mind to the information I memorized over a decade ago. Of course, Dr. Google helped a lot of the time, as well as up to date literature searches. The receptacle of medical knowledge has exponentially expanded in those years, and we took advantage of the new science. Ours was a mutually beneficial educational experience. She taught me about fragility fractures, urogynecology, and iron deficiency anemia. I taught her about pain management, physical examination maneuvers, and how to give a good oral presentation to an attending physician. It was a magical back and forth of learning, fueled by our curiosity of the human body and the practice of medicine.
We had so many thoughtful conversations, not just about the science of medicine, but more importantly, about how to communicate with other human beings, whether patients, their families, or our co-workers. There is a need to turn our inherent curiosity about the human body and its workings toward the actual patient sitting or lying in front of us. “Tell me more” is one of the most powerful questions we can ask a patient. She and I talked about how to be present to the pain and suffering of a patient, without the need to rush in and start solving the problem before the patient has time to finish their thought. Or, how to acknowledge a patent’s struggle in a supportive way: “Yes, this is so hard. You are deconditioned from your prolonged hospital stay;” Or, “It’s normal to feel tremendous grief for not being able to use your right arm right now;” Or “I’m so sorry you lost your husband in this car accident. Of course you are terrified of what the future is going to look like.” Curiosity and validation are potent medicines.
I’m not saying that physicians must be counselors or psychologists. We don’t have the specific training for that. But, as human beings, we do have the capacity to just listen. To pay attention. To hold space for suffering. As the original Hippocratic Oath stated, “I will offer those who suffer all my attention, my science, and my love.” Patients want to be seen and heard. There is a simple power in paying attention to what they are experiencing in that moment, even if there isn’t a scientific solution. Yes, it is hard to witness suffering, and yet I believe that it’s even harder when we resist it. When we close ourselves down to the discomfort, it is more difficult to move through it, as a patient or as a caregiver. We need to move through the tunnel to get to the other side, with curiosity and empathy as our guide.