Can you see me?

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Post by Jean Accius, PhD

As a child, I was taught that we dress in our Sunday best when going to the doctor. Why? Growing up, we were told stories of health care practitioners mistreating patients based solely on their appearance, or even the neighborhood they came from. So, if we wore our very best clothes, then maybe…just maybe…we might be taken seriously. We might be seen, heard and trusted as patients. And in turn, the likelihood of being mistreated subsided.

Each of us has, at our deepest core, the need to be seen and heard. We want our experiences validated, and we want to know that our voices matter. But what happens when you are not seen or heard? What happens when individuals, organizations, or even professionals don’t see you or don’t hear you? 

In the last year, we have seen the centuries-long disparities in health care further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. We have watched in real time how the pandemic disproportionately impacted Black, Latino, and American Indian/Alaska Native people with significantly higher infection rates, hospitalizations, and deaths. What is clearer than ever is that health is foundational and anything that makes it harder for us to get healthy, stay healthy, or recover when we’re sick will inevitably widen the longevity gap.   

Several months ago, my primary care doctor referred me to a specialist. The specialist was nearly two hours late for the appointment. When he finally entered the room, he quickly asked me a series of questions and, two or three words into my answer, he cut me off and told me what he thought was going on because he had “seen” previous cases like this. I barely got a word in. As he continued talking over me and at me, his phone rang. He picked it up mid-sentence and started talking about another patient to the person on the line.

Following their conversation, he returned his attention to me and picked right back up where he left off. The entire encounter was rushed. He asked the questions and seemed to have all the answers – all because two words into my visit he decided he’d “seen” this before (even though I was a brand new patient). At the end of the appointment, I did not feel seen. I did not feel heard. And I had no sense of trust. Competency and credibility are one thing. But there is no trust when there is a lack of empathy, communication, and eye contact. Patients can and sometimes do leave a doctor’s office scared of impending test results, or nervous about a diagnosis. No one should have to leave a doctor’s office feeling devalued, disappointed, angry, and discouraged. 

It’s easy to look at disparities in health care as a crisis that is too big to solve. It’s not. Rather than thinking about overcoming these obstacles as a measure of success, we need to think about removing or preventing these obstacles in the first place. As health care professionals, simply taking the time to make patients feel seen and heard will build trust. You’re the ones on the front lines, seeing those who are hurting, listening to a list of symptoms, examining the situation, and solving a problem. 

With trust, patients will have the ability to make the best decisions for themselves and their families. It won’t matter if physicians see us in our Sunday best or in an exam robe. If we foster trust, we’ll see each other as human.

Jean Accius, PhD is senior vice president for AARP Thought Leadership and International Affairs. His areas of expertise include aging, caregiving and long-term care policy.