What Being a Patient Taught Me as a Student

Adam Bennett's picture
Submitted by Adam Bennett on Aug 25, 2015 - 10:49am CDT

"I hear and I forget.  I see and I remember.  I do and I understand." -Confucius

When I first heard these words I was a first-year dental student, newly exposed to the concepts of interprofessional education and collaborative practice (IPECP).  The IPECP movement was gaining momentum, approaching a level of national awareness never achieved during its emergence in the 1960's and 70's.  Little did I realize how intimately I would encounter the meaning behind these words through my own involvement with interprofessional education, collaborative practice and patient-centered care.

For many of us students—engaged at various points along our health career education—the terms "interprofessional education" and "collaborative practice" are common buzzwords interspersed among lectures on chronic conditions, preventable medical errors and managed care.  Our instructors lecture on the importance of overcoming professional silos, establishing shared values and ethics, acknowledging the roles and responsibilities of healthcare professions different from our own, and working collaboratively through a multidisciplinary framework to achieve holistic patient-centered, team-based care.  Through diverse externships and rotations at exemplary clinical sites, many of us are privileged enough to witness, on a practical level, how IPECP positively contributes to improving patient outcomes and protecting population health.  However, while we may remember the words behind the concept, do we ever truly understand the impact that collaborative models of care can have on the most important member of the health care team: the patient?

During my second year of dental school, I came face to face with this reality and began a journey towards fully understanding and appreciating the necessity for transforming health education and care systems.  The realization started small: a firm, non-tender, semi-movable lymph node located in the right supraclavicular region.  A chest x-ray, complete blood count, CT, fine needle biopsy and mediastinoscopy later, I received a diagnosis and my golden ticket into health care practice and education: Hodgkin's Lymphoma.  Initially, I found myself a patient against the backdrop of a fractured system; practitioners failed to communicate with each other, providers spoke at me instead of with me, and I was rarely included in making treatment decisions that directly impacted my day-to-day and long-term well-being.  The focus was on my disease and not on me as a person, as a human being.  I knew there must be a better way.

Making the decision to seek care elsewhere, I eventually found myself being treated within a care system that embodied interprofessionalism and patient-centered care.  It was immediately obvious to me that the cadre of professionals treating me was familiar with each other and they made it a priority to get to know me as a person, both as an aspiring professional student and as a twenty-something whose feelings of youthful invincibility had been shattered by cancer.

So the question I want to pose, first as a patient and then as a dental student, is this: What aspects of my experience as a patient within two very different health care systems did I most appreciate and attribute to interprofessional collaboration?

The most obvious and important characteristics include improved health and well-being, improved care experience, and greater patient engagement and empowerment.  My experience directly impacted how I now consciously choose to interact with my own patients in the dental operatory.  As a dental student I understand that the mouth is a very small component of the human body; it is a small part of a complete individual who has the ability and often the desire to take ownership of their health and well-being.  I now understand the importance of my responsibility as a health care provider to empower my patients in actively engaging and taking part in decisions relating to their health. 

During the summer I was privileged to work as a student consultant with the National Center for Interprofessional Practice and Education.  On my last day, I was challenged to answer the question, "Why should students care about interprofessional education?"

My reply was this: If it my grandmother or your grandmother received a diagnosis similar to mine, would she be better served by a system of care centered on the problem or the person?  Would she be able to navigate the endless appointments with disjointed providers who may or may not communicate with each other, and still maintain the optimism and positivity crucial for patient success?  I honestly would hope and pray this is true, but my own personal experience tells me otherwise.

As millenial students and the next generation of healthcare providers, we have grown accustomed to collaboration and communication in both our professional and personal lives; we have come to expect it.  We are ready for a health care system capable of employing our willingness to collaborate; we are eager for a system that encourages us to learn with, from and about each other.  We are asking for instructors, providers, administrators and policy makers who believe, wholeheartedly, in IPECP and who are willing to invest the time and energy to create a system capable of matching our collaborative potential.  My experience challenged me to redefine myself as more than just a dentist; I am a health care provider, a committed member of a team responsible for improving and maintaining the health and well-being of my entire community.

Who are you challenging yourself to be? 

Adam Bennett