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Compassion in Medicine: Give Them Back Their Clothes

In this column, titled "Give Them Back Their Clothes", Dr. Paul Thompson reflects on the importance of creating a personal connection with patients as part of their care routine and the impact it can have on patients.

I was never in the military not because I had dangerous heel spurs—thank goodness—but because I had a medical school deferment. I do know enough about the military, however, to know that you can follow a person’s military career from the services ribbons mounted on the left chest of his/her dress uniform. These service ribbons provide us much more information than a person’s “name, rank and serial number”.

I am lucky enough to spend one week a month rounding with trainees in Boston. I recently observed an excellent MD/PhD resident interview a new patient. We left that patient’s room with a complete past and present medical history, but we also left not knowing who the patient was. He was in a hospital gown so we had literally, and now figuratively, taken away his clothes and his personal identity.

I call finding out who a patient is, what they do, and where they live “giving them back their clothes”. It is really giving them back their personal identity, and it’s critically important. Not because it’s politically correct, but because if patients know that you are as interested in them as you are in their disease, they are more likely to ask questions, reveal their wants and worries, and participate fully in their care by taking their medicines and following your advice. And me? I get to develop relationships with patients and learn about their lives, something that brought most of us into medicine in the first place.