The Doctorpatient Relationship

Most surgery patients feel reassured after spending time with the anesthesiologist, whose face is the last they see before losing consciousness. This specialty offers more than an intellectual challenge and a good lifestyle; it allows physicians to make a profound impact on their patients' lives. Anesthesiologists' contact with patients may be limited in duration, but extremely intense and rewarding in scope.

The preoperative consultation, a key interaction, involves more than taking medical histories and performing physical examinations. This quality time is spent answering questions about the planned anesthetic care and allaying patients' anxiety. Anesthesiologists need excellent interpersonal skills to comfort patients who are terrified of surrendering control of their lives under general anesthesia. They help patients emotionally who are undergoing one of the most stressful episodes in their lives. The best anesthesiologists are compassionate, sensitive, and supportive. Because of the specialty's emphasis on procedures, they must recognize that often one has to hurt somebody a little to help a lot. At all times, anesthesiologists are quick with a smile or a hand on the shoulder to foster comfort with their nervous patients. In most cases, empathy and compassion have a more lasting effect than premedication. Patient interactions, therefore, are always positive.

Although the relationships between anesthesiologists and their patients can be extremely rewarding, these physicians remain largely anonymous to health care consumers. Most anesthesiologists do not have their own group of patients, nor do patients undergoing surgery choose their anesthesiologist. As a result, the general public has never completely understood the critical role of the anesthesiologist in surgical care. Many patients are unaware that these physicians have received the same length of training as most other doctors. Thus, medical students should know that this specialty, unlike more glamorous ones, rarely brings a lifestyle of fame, fortune, and glory.

"After surgery, most patients only remember the name of their surgeon, not their anesthesiologist. We never hand out business cards, and we never get interviewed on television for helping to save a trauma victim," said a university-based anesthesiologist. "A patient who never mentions their anesthesia experience is the one who is the satisfied customer. It means that the patient made it safely through surgery without pain. That is when I can go home feeling gratified I did a good job for the day."

If you want to become a world-renowned expert to whom patients come from all over the world, anesthesiology is probably not for you. Like other hospital-based specialists, such as those in radiology and emergency medicine, anesthesiologists do not depend on recognition from their patients for ego gratification. Instead, these behind-the-scenes doctors simply derive their personal satisfaction from within.

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