Building empathy through the First Patient program
One of the most unique aspects of undergraduate medicine curriculum is the First Patient Program. It offers students the opportunity to experience the healthcare process with a real patient; from the very beginning of their academic journeys.
At the start of the school year, each of our first year students is paired with a patient from the Kingston community. The student then accompanies the patient to treatments and appointments over the next 18 months. The program has three main objectives. The first, is to give students the opportunity to observe and assist, help to care for patients and buoy their spirits, while developing and honing diagnostic and treatment skills. The second is for our students to become holistically integrated into the lives of patients, in order to build the crucial skills every successful health care provider needs. And the third is to help students to develop an understanding that patient-care exists on a continuum, from prevention to diagnostics to treatment to wellness, across different services and specialties. Although the program officially runs until the end of their second year, many students often stay in touch with and continue to follow their patients even after the official period of the program is over.
Learning to be a good doctor is a personal as well as a professional task, and learning to deliver care patient-centered care is one of the keys to a successful practice. With that in mind, one of the biggest benefits to the program is that our students are developing something that cannot be taught in a classroom: empathy.
Alana Fleet and Jonathan Cluett are medical students who were paired with a patient, Bill, as part of the program. “While it’s easy to be interested in our medical findings, we should not see patients as specimens,” says Alana. “Rather, we need to see and act like they are people first, with a problem to attend to in the right way. We should be interested in them, but not only in what is “wrong’ with their body, since what we see as pathological is also their norm. What helps us to excel is by making connections between the small problem at hand and the whole person.”
Bill turned out to be a great pairing for Alana and Jonathan, not least because his wife Lorna was a constant companion, sharing her own healthcare story, creating a two-in-one situation for the students to respond to. “I now better appreciate that even when patients are positive and motivated, their healthcare experiences are complicated and varied,” says Alana. “In my first report I commented on the ease of developing a relationship with my patient. While this was the case with Bill, it’s not that way with all patients and professionals. Even for Bill, his relationships vary with his doctors and other providers. Subtle aspects of your personality or behaviours can strengthen a physician-patient relationship or break it down quite quickly. Thus, I have become much more self-aware and open to ask for feedback, to gauge my interactions with patients.”
Jonathan’s sentiments echo Alana’s. “Above all else, Bill and Lorna have taught me the simplest lesson: to care for the whole person. Again, this is not a novel concept. Medical students hear it from day one. But it doesn’t quite click until you see it firsthand. I feel humbled to have learned so much from this program. I will always remember Bill and Lorna my true ‘first’ patients.”
Please share your thoughts by commenting on the blog, or better yet, drop by the Macklem House…my door is always open.
Thank you to Jen Valberg for her help in preparing this blog.