What am I missing?

As part of a second year medical school course that I’m involved in, I recently attended a panel discussion on LGBT health issues. I consider myself fairly sensitive to cross-cultural issues that impact medical practice, and since I know several people in the LGBT community, I anticipated that I would understand and feel some kinship with the LGBT individuals who comprised the panel.

As I sat and listened to them relate some of the experiences they had with medical and allied health professionals that left them feeling completely misunderstood and dehumanized, I found myself wondering, how many times have I spoken thoughtlessly, assuming that every one of my patients shared my world view? How many interactions have left my patients feeling unseen, and therefore less confident that they could trust me with their care? If I am to be their guide, their partner in caring for their health, how can I truly see each person as a unique individual, with their gender identity, religious beliefs, occupational stresses, family supports and demands, and all the facets of their lives that contribute to their health and disease?
How can I make sure I’m not missing something important?

The answer came out during the panel, and it’s surprisingly simple.

I can ask.

I can ask how people would like to be addressed. How their family/work/living situation/etc. is affecting their medical condition and their life. What their hopes are. What their expectations are. How they would like to be treated. I can admit that I’m not familiar with their culture or religion or background. That I’m interested in knowing what they feel is significant for me to know.

I certainly don’t want to miss anything important.
Our relationship, their health, and my own satisfaction as a doctor depends on it.

About Helane Fronek

Over the past 28 years I have had a fascinating and fulfilling career in medicine, initially practicing as a general internist and then as a procedural specialist, caring for patients with vein disorders. As Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine at UC- San Diego School of Medicine, I’m thrilled to be teaching medical students crucial communication skills along with many other aspects involved in the practice of medicine.
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