It’s been over a year, but I haven’t forgotten about the Informal Curriculum.
The first recommendation in the informal curriculum in medicine, which I still believe is “paramount, the most difficult to define, and often challenging to implement”[1. It is no coincidence that a topic that is “paramount, … difficult to define, and … challenging to implement”, is also difficult to write about.] is to be a person.
What does this mean?
Be the best professional person you can be. Be a person who actively listens to patients, who shows empathy and emotions. Be courteous. Show humanity. Be a person.
Non-psychiatrist physicians seem to have an easier time with “being a person” than psychiatrists. Psychiatrists, as a population, can be weird. We can demonstrate exceptional skills at not being people. Sometimes we come across as intrusive, awkward, and odd.
I get it. I’ve had peculiar interactions with psychiatrists who knew I work as a psychiatrist. That might explain why the conversations were even more uncomfortable than expected. (Those are stories for another day.)
Do note that this recommendation exhorts you to be a professional person. This doesn’t mean that you tell your patients about your relationship or health problems, how crappy of a day you’re having, or why your political views are correct. That stuff makes you a person, too, but that doesn’t make you a professional person.
If patients are telling you things that worry them, be a person and acknowledge their worry. If they tell you something funny and it’s not inappropriate to laugh[2. Being a person does not mean that you toss clinical judgment and boundaries away. There are times when you shouldn’t smile and laugh, even if you want to. That topic is beyond the scope of this post.], smile and laugh. Talk with them like they’re people, not diseases or case studies.
Be a person.
Patients often want to share a connection with their physicians. Patients suffer and worry. They want to know that you care about their suffering or worry. That’s what actual people[3. Yes, there are anecdotes that people will share their woes with and find comfort in a computer program.] do: They care about the suffering and worry of others.
Be a person.
Why is this paramount? Why is this my first recommendation in the informal curriculum?
Because relentless forces exist in medical training and work that can transform you into a non-person.
You use words that most people don’t use. Most people don’t talk about MELD scores, Glasgow Coma Scales, or HIV classification systems. You see a lot of emotional and physical anguish. You see people who are ill. Sometimes they cry. Sometimes they scream. Sometimes you see parts of them that they will never see. Sometimes you see them die.
These are the things that can make you turn into a non-person.
So make an effort every day to be a person. If you’re not, none of the other suggestions in the informal curriculum will matter.