A Personal Story

Some time ago I took my wife for a minor operation at a local New England hospital near where we were living at the time. We started the car at 5:15 am to make our 6:30 am appointment. The stars were out in all their glory and the snow sparkled on the evergreen trees that adjoin our modest property. This being Maine, several of our neighbors were already up and about, their busy days as fisherfolk underway.

Once seated in the hospital, a nurse anesthetist took my wife’s medical history, followed by the anesthesiologist, a young man, whose colorful surgical cap expressed his lively personality. Then our doctor came in. Despite the early hour, everyone talked in a calm and reassuring way. We could hear friendly banter at the nurse’s island. You sensed that these people liked each other, and without any fanfare, they were working together as a team. The operation went off without a hitch. In a few minutes, our doctor explained what he had found and done. He put his hand on my shoulder. Later, when I went to get my coat I automatically thanked the nurse. “No, thank you!” she replied.

Patient Experience

“You know,” my wife said, “Sometimes a pleasant attitude is half the battle.”

When I got home, I looked up this hospital in America’s Best Hospitals. This lists over 1,000 hospitals in every state. It wasn’t even there! And the other hospitals in our region were rated “Tier Four,” the worst grade. By contrast, 75 hospitals in New York make the cut and many were ranked as Tier One, the best in the world.

Being from New York, over the years, I’ve had relatives treated in many of these so-called Tier One hospitals. But by and large, every one of those encounters has been problematic. These hospitals’ technological excellence is indisputable. But sometimes their attitudes left much to be desired. Last year, another relative of mine had a heart operation in New York City. The world-famous specialist performed a procedure that sounded like something out of science fiction. It was a miracle that he performs routinely.  Yet when he made his rounds, he swept into the room with half a dozen young doctors in tow, never introduced himself, never shook hands, never even made eye contact, and talked about the patient rather than to her. In a minute he was gone (and we weren’t sorry to see him go, although our questions went unanswered).

America’s Best Hospitals

Admittedly, the U.S. medical system is beleaguered on every side. America’s Best Hospitals advises patients:

  • “Pull out all the stops…Nag. Nag. Nag. Call it follow-up, call it hounding, call it harassment, but keep calling. And if they don’t respond the way you  believe they should, hire a lawyer.”

All I can say is, wow! With patients like that, is it any wonder that some doctors won’t look you in the eye? But we’ve come to a fine pass when reputable resources tell you to lawyer up to have your questions answered.

I am not disputing that sometimes expertise counts. But too often, thinking has been separated from feeling, and “healthcare” from actual caring. There are times when a squeeze of the shoulder means as much as a sophisticated new medical device. Why can’t we have both? At moments such as these, I’m glad that I live in this lovely corner of New England, with a caring hospital that doesn’t make it into the record books, rather than on the impersonal heights of Tier One.

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Original Publication 2002