As we’ve dealt with the COVID-19 crisis the past few months, I’ve watched the face of medical imaging change, and it concerns me. Patients are delaying care, including diagnostic imaging, even when the delay might cause them harm. Techs are stressed and sweating under gloves and masks, trying hard to work quickly to reduce the exam time and limit exposure. I wonder, will these changes be permanent? And if so, how will they affect healthcare delivery in the future?
I no longer wield an ultrasound probe, but I was a tech for 25 years. It’s a world you never totally leave. My heart is still with the techs and nurses, the doctors and administrators, and all the other folks who care for others and work to make them well. And right now, my heart hurts.
Like many of us, I’ve read the news reports of caregivers feeling overwhelmed and forgotten, worried about PPE shortages, facing a frightening new pathogen we don’t fully understand. It’s a scary time for medical professionals, for patients, for all of us.
I worry about my friends who still show up to medical practices and hospitals every day, determined to provide the best possible care they can. They show up because they are dedicated and determined, and because caring for people is at the heart of what they do. I know them. I was one of them. So, I trust them to be careful.
But I also know that medical care is about more than being careful and efficient. It’s even about more than accurately diagnosing and effectively treating disease and injury. It’s about caring for people as people, and that’s what I’m most concerned about.
Maybe the mask and other PPE seem like a small thing, but how do they change the patient-caregiver relationship? Care is so often about touch and human interaction. The more barriers we have, the harder that gets.
Often, when patients come to us, it’s one of the most difficult times of their life – they don’t feel well, they have pain, or something in their lab work or other medical data suggests a problem. Some are worried they may need surgery or that their heart is damaged. Some are terrified that they may have cancer.
How we respond as fellow human beings is an integral part of the care we provide. So often, I was able to offer a moment of comfort or calm a patient’s nerves just a little with a warm smile, a light touch, a quick squeeze of the hand. It was something I saw as a critical part of my job. We ask patients to hold uncomfortable positions, we poke and prod, and we remain stone-faced no matter what we see on the scan. The least we can do to offset that impersonal interaction is to take a moment to see the whole person on the table and offer compassion. Doing that from behind a mask and gloves is much harder.
Will we lose too much of the human interaction because the face of medical imaging has changed? I hope not.
But then I remember, it really is just a mask. The face behind it is still there is, and even if we can’t see the smile, the compassion it conveys is still offered. Like I said, I know the caregivers, and I know they won’t let a mask get in the way of caring for patients as people.