Have you ever spent four painful days on a hospital trolley awaiting medical attention? Sat six hours waiting for an appointment, and not see the consultant you were expecting? Or waited two years for surgery, only for it to be cancelled at the last minute?
And when you finally met a doctor, were they kind to you? If they were, how kind? Was it a touch? A reassuring smile? Did they sit with you, or hold your hand? Did they look up from their notes, look you in the eye, and ask with sincere intensity, how have you been since we last saw you?
Were you treated with kindness?
This year kindness was at the heart of the DotMD conference, now in its seventh year. A medical conference like no other, it aims to reconnect health professionals with the art of medicine and humanity – to remind them of the reasons they wanted to pursue a career in healthcare and relight the passion they felt in early years.
Physician and author Brian Goldman spoke about the mistakes we make and how to move past shame and guilt
This year's conference consisted of a two-day event held in NUI Galway, bringing together 18 speakers from Ireland and abroad. There were sleep consultants and GPs, storytellers and writers, artists and healthcare designers. A green conference this year, Irish Doctors for the Environment, offered practical advice about minimising damage to the environment. More than 500 delegates and volunteers utilised eco-friendly reusable bottles, wooden pens and recyclable lanyards, and supported public transport, with great success.
Unlike traditional medical conferences, the focus was not on discussing techniques or clinical trials, but on contemplating challenges and highlighting the perils and pearls of a medical career. Empathy weaved through talks of kindness and mistakes, technological advancements, artistic observation and the fear surrounding death.
Physician and author Brian Goldman spoke about kindness, the mistakes we make and how to move past shame and guilt – especially in a busy emergency department. He spoke of his prior mistakes, and how he struggled to remain compassionate and caring under extreme pressure and sleep deprivation. His sentiments were echoed by psychologist Caroline Elton, who felt powerful, empathetic relationships between doctor and patient were more important than focusing solely on patient-centeredness.
Many people spoke of the evolution of healthcare. Healthcare Strategy consultant Alice Kirby described developments in healthcare design, and physician Bryan Vartabedian discussed the fear surrounding technology and how to navigate through the post-human era in which we have "undersold humanity and oversold technology". They both felt that society should take a step back from technology, find solutions to current problems, and then reintegrate suitable technology to enhance pathway efficacy.
Death was introduced with the humour and wit of former State pathologist Marie Cassidy
And what medical conference could be complete without a mention of zombies and how they can also enrich medical education?
According to Steve Schlozman, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, zombies teach us not to judge others based on their differences or disabilities, but to seek to help them and to treat them with compassion and empathy. Under the humour lies an important message – we cannot treat those who have different backgrounds with fear and hatred, simply because we do not understand them.
Humans have always had an insatiable desire for stories: accounts of others' superhuman battles, stories of love and hate, fear and loss. Doctors Anthony O'Connor, Sarah Fitzgibbon and Austin O'Carroll shared a story that had personal impact on them. Writers Sinéad Gleeson and Arnold Thomas Fanning discussed illness from their own perspective, both with beautiful books that give unimaginable insight into their own story – ultimately giving a voice to any patient who goes through similar experiences. New York-based Irish writer Colum McCann spoke about the importance of narrative medicine and the role it has in healing.
Death was introduced with the humour and wit of former State pathologist Marie Cassidy. She spoke of her unusual career choice, and our morbid fascination with death – radio death notices, wakes, and three-day-funerals are all very different to the way things are done in her native Glasgow.
Unfortunately, many of us have been touched by the cold fingers of death. Many too have heard the distressing call of the death rattle. How many of us, however, really understand the process of dying? Kathryn Mannix seeks to redefine dying in Ireland. She advocated taking the fear out of death, a process "as natural as birth", and suggested how doctors could facilitate discussions about planning for death.