Your Judgments are Hurting Your Patients

With the amount of information we are hit with day in and day out, our minds need a way of quickly triaging it. This is what stereotyping does. But let's not confuse stereotyping with prejudice. The latter is negative and the former doesn't have to be.

We all form judgments. We judge the way people look, the way they smell, the cars they drive, the company they keep. We do this to categorize people, to stereotype them so that we can quickly process what we are seeing and who we are interacting with.

With the amount of information we are hit with day in and day out, our minds need a way of quickly triaging it. This is what stereotyping does.

Let's not confuse stereotyping with prejudice. The latter is negative and the former doesn't have to be.

I recently watched a very interesting social experiment that took place with six photographers. Each one is photographing a subject and is given the subject's backstory before they meet him.

Each photographer meets the same person, but is told a wildly different backstory, from entrepreneur, to fisherman, to recently released convict.

Each of these backstories directly influenced the photographers and how they saw the person, and therefor how they photographed the person.

The result was that each photograph looked almost like a different person. Six different judgments. Six different interpretations. Six different interactions.

I did my internship at a hospital that had a prison floor for inmates in the Department of Corrections system. I was directly responsible for the well being of criminals. Talk about the ultimate stereotype.

How did I not let my feelings about them cloud my treatment of them?

Actually, it was quite easy. I wasn't told, and didn't ask about their crimes. I didn't care if they were in for life for murder, or they set fire to their house. It wasn't any of my business.

I was never worried about my safety, and neither were the female physicians I worked with, because there were always guards around.

Unfortunately, not every other intern thought about this the same way. There would be mornings when the intern who was on call overnight would start discussing the new admission - "Mr. Jones is a 33-year-old male incarcerated for rape...." - WAIT! STOP! I DON'T WANT TO KNOW THAT! Actually I CAN'T know that, and neither can you!

Knowing that, whether you think so or not, directly influences your ability to care for that patient. It's not something I want to risk. My job is to treat the patients, no matter who they are or what they have done.

I was in Boston during the Marathon bombings in 2013. I remember reading Facebook posts from physicians that worked at the local hospitals when one of the suspects was arrested, talking about how they wouldn't give him pain medications, to make him suffer.

I can fully understand why someone may think this, but by no means is this how we, as physicians, can act. It's right there in the Hippocratic Oath - "but I will utterly reject harm and mischief."

I challenge you, the next time you are dealing with a patient who you think is not up to your moral and ethical standards, put that out of your head. Look at them like you would look at your son or daughter. Listen to them like you would listen to your spouse. Treat them as if they were your parents.