Unexpected Lessons From COVID

doctor shaking hands

March 13, 2020, was “Day 1” of my COVID experience. This was the day I had to make significant adjustments in my own life to avoid catching and possibly spreading the novel coronavirus. One of the most significant changes I had to make was shutting down my business. As the owner of a small family practice office in a suburb of Dallas, I was responsible for making decisions that affected my patients and staff. In an attempt to keep everyone as safe as possible as I re-opened my office, I found myself encouraging patients not to come to see me, and instead, I started trying to take care of people’s problems over the phone.

Ironically, a few weeks earlier, I was interviewing a new patient that was also a physician. As we talked, I quickly learned that she was a telemedicine doctor. I was fascinated by her story and had a reasonably long conversation about how she started, advantages and disadvantages, and logistics. I would have never imagined that a few weeks later, my job description would mirror hers.

Like most doctors, I have adjusted to this new way of medicine. Now that I have become a telemedicine physician myself, I better understand the pros and cons my patient discussed with me a few weeks earlier. As the past few months have moved along, I realize the coronavirus has taught me a few lessons I was not anticipating.

Lesson 1: As much as I hate to admit it, I am old-school

I was a very focused college student. I graduated with my diploma when I was 21. I started medical school at age 23 and finished my residency training at age 30. Now at age 49, I catch myself referring to the old-days. These are the days when health insurance was not as complicated. The cost of medication was manageable. And I didn’t have to document my encounters with patients as if they were going to be read out loud in a court of law.

Over these nineteen years, I have embraced many changes and even come to enjoy some of them. Electronic records, telemedicine visits, and even texting my clients have expanded the way I practice medicine. However, I am not afraid to say that I miss the days when practicing medicine seemed a bit easier and more personal. I am lucky to have a small practice where I get to know my patients, but the changes I have had to make due to COVID has undoubtedly taught me that these new technologies do not replace an old-fashioned face-to-face office visit.

Lesson 2: I am fluent in Body Language

My mom is a native of Columbia and a first-generation immigrant to the United States. As a result, my family only spoke Spanish while at home. Being bilingual has given me many advantages in my life. Thanks to COVID, I now realize that I am also fluent in “Body Language.”

Averaging 4000 patient encounters a year, I never realized the importance of seeing patients in my office. I just took it for granted. Today I understand how much I use a patient’s body language and facial expressions to help guide me on whether I need to dive deeper into a medical concept. In many cases, I can tell I lost the patient during our conversation. It prompts me to pull up an image on Google to add a visual aid or maybe draw a sequence on paper to give my patient a better point of reference. Now that I have started to see patients back in my office, I am so happy to be able to read, write, and speak body language again.

Lesson 3: The eyes are not the window to the soul

As a doctor on the front lines of medicine, I certainly understand the value of wearing a mask during this COVID season. What I didn’t realize was how important the bottom half of the face is. With most of the face blocked by the mask, even simple facial expressions like a smile are hard to recognize.

I was having a conversation with my 21-year-old daughter. She recently started a new job at a hospital that strictly enforces masks on the job. She comments on how she doesn’t know what her co-workers look like since she has only seen most of them in masks. I couldn’t agree more. I am using this excuse to remind her that it is probably the wrong time to start dating. Then again, I always seem to have a good reason that it is the wrong time to start dating.

Lesson 4: I miss a good handshake

I can distinctly recall my dad showing me how to deliver a quality handshake. He always reminded me to keep direct eye contact, focus on the amount of pressure I was generating during the shake, and not to shake someone’s hand for too long. Thanks to my dad and lots of practice, I consider myself a good “handshaker.” Thanks to COVID, this is a skill I can’t use. And I miss it. It is tough to walk into a patient’s room, wash my hands, and just sit down without the handshake. It feels like something is missing. Now that I think about it, something is missing.

As we adjust to living with COVID in our world, we will continue to learn unexpected lessons. The trick is to take some of your new-found quiet moments to realize them.

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