Good doctors treat the whole person

I knew I wanted to be a family doctor when I was 10 years old and a patient at Burnaby Hospital.

I was admitted for a flare-up of inflammatory arthritis with fevers, rashes and painful joints.

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Though I was presented as a case at the doctors’ teaching rounds, my bedside care was personal. At a time when there was little more than prednisone to treat my condition, the best therapy was the care of my nurses and doctors.

They weren’t treating a case or a disease, but rather a whole person – a scared kid with a mysterious condition and uncertain prognosis. I had a profound trust that they were looking out for me. I remember the uplifting feeling of comfort when my kind and cheerful family doctor, Dan McCarthy came to visit. Decades later he would retire early from practice in order to take on his new role with the B.C. Medical Association. Behind the scenes, he was strengthening primary care throughout our province, supporting family doctors in giving good care to their patients.

In medical school, I considered a number of specialties, including pediatrics and psychiatry, but in family practice, I loved listening to each patient’s story.

This was not just the medical history or the history of a presenting condition. It was the narrative of a whole life – joys and sorrows, adventure and misadventure, pride and regret, relationships evolving and dissolving.

In many specialties, physicians can focus on a condition (i.e. enlarged prostate) or organ system (i.e. the gastrointestinal tract or cardiovascular system), but in family practice, more than anywhere else, we see a more complete individual, and disease is seen only in the context of that individual’s unique life.

In family practice, we see our patients over time – not just over months or even years but across decades and generations.

Over the past 25 years, I have seen babies I have delivered grow into adults and parents themselves, and I have grown with patients my own age from a young adult to a parent of children who are young adults today.

We not only listen in order to understand our patients’ stories, but we become part of their stories. With empathy, compassion and patience, part of our care is in shaping their stories in a positive direction.

More than anyone else in the health-care system, a good family doctor is an advocate for the individual patient. I want the best for each of my patients. In any situation and at every stage of life, I want for them the most positive outcome in which their goals, values and aspirations are respected.

My golden rule of medicine has always been to treat every patient with the care I would want for a best friend and family member. It has cost me much in time, thought and effort, but in return, it has given me the most gratifying calling that I return to with vigour day after day.

Although I cannot speak for every GP, I believe that this is the unique perspective of a good family doctor – to see the complete person before me and treat medical conditions only in the context of that unique life.

Other health-care professionals may be able to do some aspects of my work and at a walk-in clinic, a colleague may treat one medical condition, but no one else will act as an advocate for the unique and complete individual like a caring family doctor.

If you’re not seeing your own family doctor, who is looking out for you? If you do not have a family doctor, contact your community’s Division of Family Practice through divisionsbc.ca.

Davidicus Wong is a family physician. Visit his blog at davidicuswong.wordpress.com.

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