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A look into the dangerous expectations of perfection from our doctors

Americans see a doctor 4 times a year, on average. In Japan, that number is significantly higher. Japanese visit doctors 13 times per year.

Our lives from birth to death are connected with doctors. As children, we see pediatricians for bumps and bruises, coughs and sore throats. As adults, we see a wide range of specialists for both our mind and our body. And, in our final breaths, a caring doctor tends to our last wishes.

Do We See Or Know Our Doctors Enough?

Over a lifetime, we may see a doctor from 300 to nearly 1,000 times. This number tends to be lower for men. Pregnancy accounts for many visits. However, even excluding pregnancy-related visits, women were 33 percent more likely than men to visit a doctor.

Oftentimes, we allow doctors more intimate access to our bodies and our minds than we do to even our significant others. And, yet, we often know little about our provider: “Does my surgeon have kids? Is she dog person? What’s her favorite TV show?”

Does this lack of knowledge matter? On the one hand, doctors are scientists. However, you could also argue that medicine is “art based on science.” It is this artistic component of medicine that sometimes makes patients nervous.

Understanding healthcare is complex. Instead of focusing on impersonal data and statistics, I decided to jump in and talk with a few doctors.

What Is It Really Like To Be A Doctor?

If we had more perspective on physicians’ lives, we would likely be a bit more understanding. We are also conditioned to believe that our doctors are perfect. But, no one is perfect. With an improved understanding of this, we may be able to trust our doctors more. And, this trust may translate into improved outcomes.

I am working on understanding this as a patient and a father, as well as a wellness advocate.

In The Beginning

doc·tor (däktər): 1.a qualified practitioner of medicine; a physician.

Dr. Vaughan graduated from the Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine in 2009. He works in Asheville, NC and specializes in Family Medicine and Sports Medicine. Dr. Vaughan is affiliated with Mission Hospital. Via MAHEC

I first met Dr. Aaron Vaughan about a year ago. He visited our store, Remedy, on his own time to learn if our products could help his patients. He was curious, polite, easy to talk to, asked great questions, shared a little about his own wellness journey, and was open to answering questions about his practice.  To add to his aura of perfection, he was dressed impeccably – no, ridiculously – well. I later found out he was actually kind of dressed down that day.

This interaction strengthened my belief about doctors. As a society, we expect perfection from them, and they aspire to meet that impossible standard.

Here is what I learned about Dr. Aaron Vaughan.

Meeting Aaron

Aaron came from a blue collar family of Southern Baptist Ohioans. His dad was an electrician, and his mom a secretary. Throughout his childhood, they espoused the value of hard work, not only as a way of getting ahead in life, but also as a principle of doing the right thing.

In high school, when he first considered careers, Aaron researched many fields. He visited his aunt who is a Physician Assistant, interned with physical therapists, watched chiropractors treat spines and his personal least favorite, helped in a veterinary office: “I had to neuter cats for three days. It was not for me!'”

He also shadowed his primary care physician, Dr. Lago. As a small-town doc, he “took care of the nursing homes, taught at med school, and covered Friday night football,” recalled Aaron. He appreciated that Dr. Lago was a well-respected family man and a really good person. This influence, combined with Aaron’s love of science, biochemistry, and sports, led him to apply to pre-med colleges.

His mind was open, but medicine was likely the right path.

Like every college student, he encountered challenges along his path. What nearly derailed him was an Anatomy & Physiology professor. Aaron recalled, “He almost stopped me, because he told me I wasn’t intelligent enough to make it into Med school. Ironically, I got an A in his class.” He lit a fire in Aaron though. Despite these challenges, he got into med school, passed his boards, and decided to move to Asheville.

Love for the great outdoors

As a promising young physician, Aaron had many options. He decided on Asheville, because he found a community with similar values: a heartfelt sense of family, and a passion for improving the community. This along with its great outdoor options sealed the deal.

Hard work (hopefully) pays off

One of Aaron’s core beliefs is to give back to the Asheville community. For him, this means offering his orthopedic medicine expertise and time to local sporting events. He’s been involved with UNC Asheville basketball, Carolina Day School sports, Buncombe County Sports Commission, SoCon sports championships, the Biltmore Marathon, Mission Sports Medicine, Asheville High School, FootRx races, Asheville City Marathon, Hellbender 100, Jus’ Running races, the Asheville Turkey Trot 5k, and the Spartan Race.

At this point my hand cramped and I simply couldn’t keep writing down all the organizations that he has helped as a medical director, consultant, or organizer. This is in addition to his regular work with MAHEC and Asheville Orthopaedic Associates.

Me: “Why do you do feel compelled to do all of this? You already have a full patient load and work 12-hour days.”

Dr. Aaron Vaughan: “I think it’s just a way of giving back. Not just to the community. I feel like I have a certain level of expertise with these events. We have resources here, and people reach out.”

He was simply matter of fact. “For me, it’s just a matter of whether there’s a need, and if I have time to do it, or if someone else here [co-worker physicians] can do it.” Aaron seemed  happy to help the community, no matter how late he got home.

Personal Touch

The value of a handshake is important. Building a connection is important.

Aaron’s approach to patient interactions is much softer than my personal experiences with other doctors. He considers touch an important part of the patient-physician relationship: a welcoming handshake, a pat on the shoulder, non-threatening eye contact. Anyone can say this, but Aaron actively practices it.

At the end of the day, he looks to give people hope. He listens carefully, understands the patient’s expectations, and offers all options and possible outcomes.

Aaron explains that the doctor-patient relationship is really intimate. He states that “it is really a relationship, not a hierarchy. “We’re a team, with the goal of helping you be the best person you can be. You’re coming to me for help. We’re listening to each other, and we’re in this together.”

One of the biggest problems of putting physicians on a God-like pedestal is the intimidation factor. If we expect that doctors know everything and that they can understand our entire lives from one 7-minute meeting, we won’t ask critical clarification questions or alert them to life factors that may impact treatment. The quickest route to disappointment-ville is through misplaced expectations.

Dr. Aaron states: “I try to never leave people hanging. When I exit the room, I always give them options. If the first option doesn’t work, don’t disappear. Communicate with me, and let’s figure out the next step.”

People Expect A Machine

While physicians are heavily regulated by the government and private agencies, as well as their employers, they still get to choose how to interact with a patient.

Aaron understands that the same approach will not work for every patient. He doesn’t have a “cookie-cutter” approach to medicine, and he works to understand his patients and meet them where they are. There’s no worse feeling for a patient than being vulnerable with a stranger, and receiving a heavy dose of condescension or embarrassment for, “You should have known.”

One of the biggest surprises from our conversation was Aaron’s statement that he treats every patient with an evidence-based approach, but realizes that he doesn’t know everything. This was the first time I had personally heard this admission from a physician

The Radical Notion That Doctors Are People, Too

Aaron Vaughan, MD

(Aaron Vaughan via Instagram)

This experience helped me understand many things.

  • The more we trust our doctor, the more open and transparent our conversations will be.  
  • Ultimately, it’s about building a relationship. Are doctors a commodity, like a Toyota Camry or a new iPad? “Where’s my warranty? Why didn’t you know I had Strep? WHY HAVEN’T YOU FIXED ME YET??”
  • Expecting our physicians to be perfect creates a dangerous domino effect of poor outcomes, increased stress, and costly litigation.

I could see Aaron the person, not just the “perfect” Aaron.

So how do we improve relationship encounters between doctor and patient? Should patients be required to attend communication classes before seeing a doctor for a major medical condition? Should a part of a doctor’s exam be successfully navigating a series of difficult patient conversations. “Sorry Joe, you didn’t pass our physician exam because you didn’t make the patient laugh enough.”

We’re All Human

Ultimately, we are all human. We are imperfect. We make (many) mistakes ourselves, and somehow expect others to be infallible (especially physicians.) But, physicians are also human.

About The Author

Jason De Los Santos is the owner of Remedy Health & Wellness Store. Remedy’s mission is to support and provide inspiration along your wellness journey. Remedy offers nutrition coaching for groups, individuals, and community wellness classes. For more information, visit https://remedyhw.com/nutrition-coaching-asheville-hendersonville/

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