There are geriatric programs now that encourage medical students to spend 10 days or so in a nursing home — as a patient. They are given a “pretend” disease and diagnosis, and if that means living in a wheelchair and eating a special diet, that’s what they do. One student who was at a VA hospital, smeared petroleum jelly on his glasses and put cotton in his ears to replicate a patient with failing eyesight and hearing. I think this is a great idea and will give these men and women more empathy for their patients once they become doctors. But I don’t think it goes far enough, and I believe all doctors should learn what it’s like to be a patient in their specialty before they get a license to put on their white coats and ask us to take off our clothes.
Obstetricians should have to have some sort of uncomfortable pillow bulging from their stomachs. Then they should be subjected to perfect strangers touching their bellies and saying things like, “In my day, the doctors didn’t let us gain so much weight.” Of course, the male future obstetricians will get some different kinds of comments, but they must just smile at the skeptic who doesn’t believe a man can get pregnant.
Pediatricians should have to go through everything that babies endure. Their cheeks should be pinched and people they don’t know should pat their bottoms affectionately. When the male students’ diapers are changed, they can’t say a word when whoever is changing them makes a comment about the size of their genitals. On the other hand, since they will be pretending to be babies, the students will be allowed to try to pee on the person changing their diaper.
Those prospective doctors who plan on treating adolescents will have huge false pimples placed all over their bodies. Then in the waiting room, they’ll have to sit next to young people with perfect skin who look at them with disgust. When they see the doctor, they’ll sit there calmly as he tells them, “They’re just pimples. Nothing to worry about. Nobody will even notice.”
Medical students pretending to be adult patients will have to wait up to two hours before seeing their “doctor.” Then after he or she deigns to see the student, the doctor will have the wrong file, take personal calls and forget why the patient is there. After that, the medical student/patient will be presented with a bill whose total will be slightly more than the Gross National Product of Brazil.
Getting back to the geriatric patients, as I said, I think it’s a good idea, but it’s just a start. Those posing as senior citizens should be ignored by people in the gift shop, pushed out of the way by younger people and spoken to by almost everyone in a condescending tone of voice.
To give the prospective doctors an even greater idea of the frame of mind of some seniors, they should have to participate in a little play. The students should be seated at the kitchen table while those pretending to be their kids are off to the side. The kids talk about the senior citizen as if he or she isn’t there. They don’t even bother to whisper. It would go something like this:
DAUGHTER: “We’ve got to do something about Dad.”
SON: “What are you talking about? He’s fine.”
DAUGHTER: “He’s not fine. Just look at him.”
At this point, the son and daughter look at the medical student/older person who continues to eat his or her breakfast cereal. The son and daughter shake their heads glumly and the student is supposed to act as if he doesn’t know they are talking about and staring at him or her.
SON: “Well, he can’t live with us. We don’t have the room.”
DAUGHTER: “I knew you were going to say that. OK, he can stay with us, but I get Mom’s jewelry.”
At this point, the medical student/senior has the right to pretend to be choking, spitting the cereal all over the kitchen table.
I definitely think this kind of program will make doctors more compassionate toward older patients. And it might make them think a little longer about how much they should leave their kids in their wills.
Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from “Sesame Street” to “Family Ties” to “Home Improvement” to “Frasier.” He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his Web site at lloydgarver.com and his podcasts on iTunes.