An individual’s identity is a learned response to social stimuli, i.e., we are what we do. Doctors are perceived to be benevolent, knowledgeable, and powerful in matters of life and death. However, a complex “role disorientation” can take place when a doctor becomes a patient. Because doctors dedicate much of their lives to ensuring the well-being of patients, they may have a skewed perception of their personal health risks and fail to acknowledge that they, too, can fall victim to illness.
A doctor’s sense of identity is strongest in a health care setting. However, becoming a patient causes a drastic change in authority, duty, privacy, and even attire!
In April of 2018, I underwent cervical spine surgery. On a personal level, I experienced a loss of identity, increased anxiety and loss of self-esteem, which reduced my ability to connect with those who, in my professional role as “doctor,” were my colleagues. It also let me experience the healthcare system from a patient’s perspective. Lab draws, the clanking and claustrophobia of an MRI scan, IV’s, catheters, drains, etc. I was a fish out of water.
I keep this picture handy to remind me of my experience back then, what I learned and what I could communicate to my patients as a result. This role reversal really enhanced a fundamental skill of connecting with others through self-awareness and most importantly, empathy!
Although unsettling at first, I later realized that the “do no harm” nature of medicine and the generally accepting demeanor of patients can make the relationship between empathy and role reversal especially balanced. Like in any other relationship, although it is comfortable and convenient to stay on one side, being able to grasp an emotional representation of the other side is essential. Like the saying goes, “We all desire to be understood, but to be understood, we must first seek to understand.”
Yours in health,
Eduardo R. Elizondo, MD, CLCP