Being a Patient Will Make Her a Better Doctor

The third annual Stockman Lecture, a plenary address at the American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP) National Conference & Exhibition, was not delivered by an experienced pediatrician with decades of wisdom to share. Instead, the presentation was given by a second year medical student, living with a chronic medical condition. She shared her insights from “both sides of the bed” with more than 3,000 pediatricians gathered in San Francisco on Oct. 22. Samantha “Sami” Kennedy was diagnosed at age 14 with ulcerative colitis. Her experience with doctors, hospitals and ImproveCareNow, a collaborative chronic care network of patients, parents, pediatric gastroenterologists, nurses, nutritionists, researchers and quality improvement experts, influenced her decision to go to medical school.

Her first year of medical school was filled with optimism and idealism. Her disease had been in remission for five years. Then, during her first year at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University, her symptoms re-emerged and she returned to being a patient as well as a medical student.

“I tried to think of how to ameliorate the gap between my feelings of vulnerability as a medical student with my entirely different feelings of vulnerability as a chronic illness patient,” she said. 

Being able to clearly understand the perspective of both patient and doctor will make her better at being both, she said. This is especially true when considering treatment regimens that may be hard for a patient to follow.

“I have been imperfectly adherent,” she said. “I have disengaged in my own care when I have hit a threshold of frustration. My actions, or lack thereof, have been the root cause of at least one of my relapses… I am not the paradigm of a perfect patient. I am a real person, as are you and your patients, and it is a hard thing to be.”

Reflecting on her failures to follow her treatment regimen compels her to think about the human aspects of her studies and practice, she said. 

“The more I recognize my own humanity as a patient, the better I am able to care for others in return,” she said. “Being a patient is making me a better doctor. In acknowledging that I struggle to accept my own disease, to care for myself as I expect others to care for themselves, and to meet the expectations my colleagues and caregivers have set for me, I have to recognize the humanity of others beyond myself.”

Kennedy also spoke fondly of and gave credit to an intern named Sara who came and talked to her after Kennedy’s initial diagnosis with ulcerative colitis. 

“She came after rounds and sat on the edge of my bed, and she told me her story. She made herself vulnerable to me. She took off her white coat and told me about what it was like for her to be a girl in a gown like me; to get to know a world of sickness, foreign and frustrating. I never saw Sara after that hospitalization, but nine years ago, she built a bridge that still endures.”

As a physician, Sami says that she endeavors to be someone else’s Sara. 

Kennedy is a second-year medical student at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University in Camden, N.J. She co-led the patient advisory board for the ImproveCareNow learning health network from 2012 through 2015. She co-developed a peer-to-peer social network, and co-created care improvements at the local and national level with patients, families and clinical teams.

This story was first published in the Annual Report. Check out our full 2016 Annual Report!

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