One of my favorite parts of my job is being able to meet and learn from community leaders. Not only does the wisdom gleaned from these interactions inform my work, it inspires me as well. Recently, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know venerable leader Reverend Bill Calhoun. Reverend Calhoun has a long history of serving Denver, including leading critical conversations about health care in communities around the city. During our conversations, I’m always struck by his refreshing take on local health care reform.
Earlier this month I sat down with Reverend Calhoun and interviewed him to capture some of his wisdom, and the theme that echoed through his words was the importance of empathy and compassion in health care. For him, it came from personal experience:
"Years ago a severe sore throat sent me to see my Iowa doctor and taught me a great truth. The doctor came into the room and sat down. He looked at me in a listening way and asked, ‘How are you?’ The doctor seemed to be more interested in the ‘whole me’ rather than simply in the symptoms that brought me to the office that day. As he listened deeply, my sore throat seemed to go away.
In the healing ministries of Elijah and Jesus, there is a similar dynamic. In the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, Elijah and Jesus were more into listening and seeing than into talking and being busy. From these lessons, I truly believe that having a good talk with your doctor—with the doctor listening and the patient asking important questions—is a central piece of real health care reform."
I was struck by the idea that to listen was to show compassion. Patients may not know whether a provider is providing the best care or not because they don’t have the medical training to understand the options and the pros and cons; but they do know whether they’ve been listened to, and that contributes significantly to their health care experience. Reverend Calhoun found that he could help his parishioners get more out of their doctor visits by coaching them in how to get their provider to listen.
"It started when people with cancer were upset that their oncologist would not take the time to sit down and talk with them. On chemotherapy visits, one particular oncologist would come to the waiting room door, say a perfunctory hello and move on.
These cancer patients were coached between appointments to write down every single question and concern they had. They carried these questions to the appointment. When the doctor would appear at the door, the patient was coached to say, ‘Doc, please come in here and sit down. I have several questions to talk with you about.’
Sure enough, the doctor would come in and sit down and work through the questions. Through these good talks with the doctor, the patients became more engaged in their own health strategies and more a partner in the health care process."
I’m sure many of us have heard before that it is important for providers to better listen to their patients, but Reverend Calhoun reminded me that patients have a responsibility in this, too.
"You and I need to do our part to initiate the conversation. We need to speak up, to take charge of our health. Our getting involved in the conversation with the medical community gets at what Doctor Albert Schweitzer had in mind when he wrote: “Every patient carries his [or her] own doctor inside."
We often assign responsibility to different parts of the health care system—hospitals, clinics, providers, insurance companies, government regulations, and more—to be working on improvements to the overall system. Reverend Calhoun suggests we should also assign responsibility to patients for being engaged in their own health.
"Now when I see my doctors, I always carry my list of questions, not wanting to forget my questions in the short time allowed. My doctors who know me often begin by saying, ‘Let me hear your questions.’ Through my questions and these conversations, I begin to understand more, and I feel more understood. And health care reform moves forward."