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Tuesday May 20, 2014

Turn the Page: Saying Goodbye Not Easy for Graduating Resident, Patients

My residency is almost over. By this point in our careers, all graduating family medicine residents have spent four years in college, four in medical school and at least three years (sometimes four) in residency. You might think there would only be elation, joy and relief on the cusp of completing this grueling, 11-year process.

It has been years of 80-hour (or more) workweeks, cafeteria food (if you even have time to go there), missing your kids' school events, missing your spouse's birthday, being that relative who misses weddings, funerals and Mother's Day -- all while struggling to pay the bills. By this time in some other industries, we might have made a fortune by working such long hours, but instead we are in serious debt. Most of us owe more in student loans than we do on our mortgages.

The bond a patient can develop with his or her family physician is amazing. Here I am with a patient who is interested in following me to my new practice -- more than two hours away.

So why would anyone sign up for the not-so-enticing path I just described?

Three words: the patient relationship.

As a medical student, you get limited exposure to continuity of care because rotations are usually eight weeks long, at most, so the number of repeated contacts with a specific patient or family is limited. Family medicine residency, however, focuses on relationships and caring for a patient across all settings, whether that be at the physician's office, a nursing home, the patient's home, a hospital or a hospice facility.

I've delivered babies and handed them off in the delivery room to a grandmother who is also my patient. Moments like that give you more enthusiasm and energy than a venti coffee ever could.

What I'm realizing as I near the end of my training is that patients get more than quality medical care from our interactions. They develop a bond with us that has far-reaching implications. My patients feel like they know me as a person, not just as a diagnostician. We have conversations about their priorities and how their financial and logistical realities relate to treatment. We grow to understand each other.

I don't think most patients in a residency training program realize how much we appreciate them. They quite literally provide the foundation for our specialty training. Most of us can remember our first patient in the office, our first well-child visit and our first reading of a patient's obituary. We remember the cards and notes patients send us, but most importantly, we remember how they humbled us with their complex medical cases.

I recently added a little spiel to each patient encounter I have about how I will be leaving the program and transitioning them to another resident in July. This conversation fails to get any easier with repetition.

I have had multiple patients cry. Several have stood up and hugged me, and a lot have asked for directions to where I am going next.

Through this process, I have noticed a difference between two groups of patients. Those who I inherited from a former resident (or from generations of residents in my program) smile and say I better pick a good physician to take my place. In contrast, the patients I acquired from the emergency room or hospital and brought to this practice during my residency -- many of whom had never had a family doctor before -- tend to enter a brief panic. I explain that the same attending physicians who have been joining our visits occasionally are still going to be here to precept the residents, that the incoming class of residents is wonderful, and that the same nurses will answer their phone calls. Some of those patients say that they don't want a new doctor, and they will drive the 2 1/2 hours to my new office to see me.

I've heard over and over, 'I've never found a doctor like you,' 'You listen to me,' 'You know my whole family.' They say they like being able to come with their kids to one big, long appointment for everyone. They like to see a face they know if they get admitted to the hospital. And women have told me they want to have the same doctor take care of them during and after their pregnancy and see their new babies.

To all of these cares and concerns, there's really only one reply I can give, and it's a reassuring one: That's family medicine. I am a family doctor, and they will get the same care and have the same opportunities across generations with their next family doctor. I am nothing special within family medicine; it's family medicine that is special.

There are more than 3,000 family medicine residents who will be graduating soon. What tips do you have for other third-year residents who are preparing to say goodbye to their patients? If you've had a particularly gratifying goodbye, please share your story in the comments field below.

Kimberly Becher, M.D., is the resident member of the AAFP Board of Directors.

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The opinions and views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent or reflect the opinions and views of the American Academy of Family Physicians. This blog is not intended to provide medical, financial, or legal advice. All comments are moderated and will be removed if they violate our Terms of Use.