The Power of Words: Revising the Doctor-Patient Relationship

As doctors, we are not trained to understand the power of our words as they relate to a patient's ability and desire to survive. Words can become swords and, like a scalpel, kill or cure.
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As doctors, we are not trained to communicate and understand the power of our words as they relate to a patient's ability and desire to survive. It is also not only doctors but all the authority figures in our patient's lives that affect their ability to survive and the outcome of their disease. Parents, teachers, clergy and physicians change lives with their words. It is hypnotic for a child or patient to hear an authority figure's words. As I am always sharing, wordswordswords can become swordswordswords and we can kill or cure with either words or swords.

Up to the age of six a child's brain wave pattern is similar to that of a hypnotized individual. To quote a woman whose mother only gave her failure messages and dressed her in dark colors, and who as an adult has more trouble with her mother's words than she does with cancer: "My mother's words were eating away at me and maybe gave me cancer." We know from recent studies that loneliness affects the genes which control the immune system. So as doctors we need to ask the right questions and know what a patient has experienced and is experiencing in their lives. Can you imagine treating Christopher Reeve's wife for cancer without knowing her family history?

I recently received two emails: one from a woman who had a recurrence of her cancer and has decided to not undergo chemotherapy again. Her doctor said, "Then you might as well go home and commit suicide." The other email came from a woman who asked her doctor if they could become a team as she had just finished reading my book. He told her no and that he was the doctor and in charge of her care. She packed her belongings and walked out of the hospital and has found a caring oncologist to work with. She is a survivor and not a submissive sufferer -- or, from the doctor's perspective, a so-called good patient.

We need to listen to our patient's words and treat their experience. Helen Keller said it very well when she said, "Deafness is darker by far than blindness." We also need to understand that patients do not live a disease they live an experience and we need to ask how a patient would describe their experience and then treat them accordingly. The words they use, like draining, failure, denial, pressure, gift and wake-up call are always about what is happening in their life. So we can help them to heal their lives and improve the chances of curing their disease.

I did a great deal of children's surgery and I meet many of these children today, as young adults, and am amazed at how vivid their memories are. It is obvious how important this event was to them and the details they recall. I learned how powerful my words were when I began to notice children falling asleep as we wheeled them into the operating room. One boy turned onto his stomach and fell asleep as we entered the O.R. I turned him over on the operating table and he said, "What are you doing? You told me I would go to sleep in the operating room and I sleep on my stomach." I told him I needed to operate on his stomach to get to his appendix, so we reached a compromise.

I would rub an alcohol sponge on a child's arm and tell them it would numb their skin and a third would not feel the needle and ask why other doctors didn't do that. I called it deceiving people into health. Give someone who has faith in you a placebo and call it a hair growing pill, anti-nausea pill or whatever and you will be amazed at how many respond to your therapy.

Years ago psychologist Bruno Klopfer was involved with a cancer patient involved in a study to determine the effectiveness of Krebiozen. His patient responded dramatically until the initial report came out saying it didn't seem effective. Then Klopfer told him the problem was that he hadn't received the super refined Krebiozen and it was coming next week. He purposely told him that to build up the intensity of the situation. A week later he told him it came and gave him an injection of a placebo and his cancer melted away. He remained well until six months later when the final report was published declaring the drug was of no use in the treatment of cancer. He died within the week.

Doctor Milton Erickson, from his childhood experience with polio and hearing his doctor's dire predictions to his mother that he wouldn't see the sun rise, knew how important words were. As a child his anger led him to defy the doctor's predictions. As a psychiatrist, and hypnotherapist, he knew how to talk to patients to achieve the best outcome. There are many books about his work. One by Dr. Sidney Rosen is entitled My Voice Will Go With You. And our voices do. At the conclusion of an operation, while patients were still under anesthesia, a time when they hear their surgeon's words, I would say, "You will awaken comfortable, thirsty and hungry." I did that until I noticed many of my patients were gaining weight and so I added these words, "But you won't finish everything on your plate."

One last story. (It is hard for me to stop because there is only one thing truer than the truth: a story.) Stories change people while statistics give them something to argue about. Erickson would write in a patient's chart and then excuse himself and leave the room. Of course he expected the patient would get up and go look at what he had written and he wrote, "Doing well." So be give your family mottoes to live by like, "Do what makes you happy," so they pay attention to their feelings, and "Difficulties are God's redirections," so they keep an open mind about the future. And remind your doctor that their words can become swords and, like a scalpel, kill or cure.

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