(Wonderful) Observations from Under the Knife: Not Your Typical Thank You Letter

3 Feb

I had surgery a few months ago. It wasn’t major from a medical perspective but it required general anesthesia and that I go under the knife, which was enough to send my anxiety through the roof and prompt many sleepless nights leading up to the big day.

I’m happy to report that the surgery went well, and I am now fully recovered.

As my health scare continues to recede ever so smoothly to the far recesses of my mind, the remarkably positive, nurturing experience I had with my physician, from day one to my final post-op appointment, remains foremost in my mind and continues to give me great comfort.

I have no shortage of real-life horror stories about grumpy, insensitive, patronizing physicians who made it obvious that they wanted to move on to their next appointment (or lunch date or whatever) as quickly as possible. Perhaps you have some stories of your own?

Dr. Fox was just the opposite. He was kind and brought the same high level of interest in my case to each visit. He was patient and genuinely thoughtful when he spoke, and he was equally so when he listened. His empathy was overt and authentic. He was able to read and in turn responded to my non-verbal cues, even when I wasn’t aware that I was giving any. And the list goes on and on. From my vantage point as both a patient and a communication and interpersonal skills expert, Dr. Fox stands out and is an excellent role model for physicians whose bedside manner is less than optimal. He helps define ‘exemplary’ as relates to the ‘soft side’ of medical care today.

Below is the thank you letter I sent to Dr. Fox. I am sharing it for two reasons: 1) Dr. Fox deserves the public recognition; and 2) I want you, a consumer of healthcare just like me, to know what is possible and what you deserve from your doctor.

Dear Dr. Fox,

This may not be your typical thank you letter. I certainly appreciate and respect the high quality medical care you provided, but that is not my focus here.

I am writing today to express my gratitude for the exceptional way in which you communicated and interacted with me throughout our time together. While there are others in the medical profession who don’t give ‘bedside manner’ or ‘soft skills’ much credence, you clearly recognize that they are essential to the effective practice of healthcare today.

What sets you apart and makes you a role model for other physicians is your ability to relay information kindly and clearly; your capacity for empathy; your ability to read and respond to my verbal and non-verbal cues; your body language and tone of voice; and so much more. By way of example, each time we met:

  1. You were authentically kind. You spoke with feeling and in a tone that made it clear to me that you weren’t following a script. Your smile was always genuine and designed just for me. I never got the impression that you hurriedly taped a fake smile onto your mouth just before entering the room. 
  2. You exhibited enthusiasm and genuine interest, which assured me that spending time with me wasn’t an imposition and keeping you from something far more important.
  3. You effectively hid any skepticism you may have felt about the symptoms I shared with you. I had no idea after we spoke each time whether you thought any of my concerns or the symptoms I reported were ‘off the wall’.
  4. You listened intently to my questions and fears and responded to both my words, and the non-verbal cues I was giving through my hands clenched tightly on my lap; my furrowed eyebrows; my watery, vulnerable eyes, etc.
  5. You shook my hand fully and warmly at the start of every visit and looked me in the eye each time you did so.
  6. You used my name frequently when sharing information and answering my questions, which made me feel like I was a real person to you, not just another nameless patient in the course of your day.
  7. You sat down fully in the chair and pulled it right up next to me, as opposed to hanging off the edge of the seat across the room or, even worse, standing the whole time. This gave me the sense that all of your attention was on me, and you weren’t waiting for the first opportunity to be done. Sitting right next to me also put us at eye level, which made it feel like more of a conversation and like we were on a level playing field in some respects, as opposed to a doctor-to-patient lecture.
  8. And so much more…

I do you a disservice to describe these qualities in list form. It is how you wove them together as a ‘fully integrated package’ of indisputably authentic behaviors, attitudes, verbal and nonverbal that made it all work. To be sure, it is your authenticity that tells me you mean it when you use certain words; when you look me in the eye when you speak with me; when you pause and let me speak; etc.

You may think the examples above are trite, or that they are intuitive to everyone. Trust me, they are neither. That’s what makes it so exciting that the medical community is paying attention to the need for soft skills coaching for physicians, and that there is a growing number of programs designed for this purpose.

While this letter is above all a heartfelt thank you, I do have one request. I ask that you share this letter with as many medical students, residents and longtime doctors as you can. My hope is that by sharing this letter with others you will help many more physicians understand the profound positive impact that stellar communication and interpersonal practices can have on their patients, their career and the overall practice of healthcare.

Thank you, Dr. Fox, from the very bottom of my heart.

Best, Dara

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