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Beyond IVF Success Rates: Why Compassionate Infertility Care Matters
In all medical fields, you will find there are many physicians who excel in their technical knowledge and skill. It is no different in reproductive endocrinology — there are many physicians who can quickly diagnose a fertility issue and successfully treat it either with surgery, medication or in vitro fertilization (IVF).
But success rates are not always what matters most caring for the whole patient. In my opinion, compassion — a skill that is not found in medical journals or taught in medical school — is key to helping achieve the most positive outcome.
The “care” part of “health care” means responding to the physical, emotional, spiritual and intellectual needs of patients. How a doctor relates to a patient is often the determining factor on whether the patient has a positive experience or not. Being able to connect and communicate with patients extremely important.
I saw firsthand how important compassionate medical care was when I was just 9 years old. My parents were comforted by a very warm, tender family doctor making house calls many times a week for my grandparents, Sonia and Joseph, who were terminally ill and living in our home in 1958-1959. My parents had tremendous respect and appreciation for this most caring physician … even though medically there was little he could do. This left quite an impression on a young boy. I was really touched by how he cared for everyone — patients and family members — and the experience sparked my interest in becoming a doctor.
For a couple, infertility can be as frustrating, stressful and depressing as a terminal illness. But when attention, respect and compassion are expressed toward patients, they feel valued. When the doctor works with the patients as a partner in their medical care and is available and accessible throughout the infertility journey, the experience is more positive. A patient who gets pregnant may have great things to say about her experience, but more important is how the patient who doesn’t get pregnant feels. If she feels good about how she was treated, she may be more likely to try again and be successful on a subsequent cycle.
Research has shown that compassionate, patient-centered care improves patient outcomes and adherence to medical advice. A 2000 study published in the Journal of Family Practice found that patient-centered communication influences patients' health through perceptions that their visit was patient centered, and especially through perceptions that common ground was achieved with the physician. More recently, in 2010, the Schwartz Center for Compassionate Healthcare conducted a survey of patients and physicians that found both parties believe strongly that compassionate health care makes a difference in how well patients recover from illness and whether a patient lives or dies.
The Schwartz Center was founded by Boston health care attorney Ken Schwartz who realized during a 10-month battle with lung cancer what mattered most was the human connection between patients and their caregivers. He lost the battle, but before he died, he wrote an article for The Boston Globe that reminded physicians “to stay in the moment with patients,” and emphasized how “the smallest acts of kindness made the unbearable bearable.”
Perhaps the most humbling moment for me as a doctor came recently when I was named as a recipient of a “Most Compassionate Doctor Certification,” which was based on patients’ reviews and comments medical review sites. Having devoted much of my adult life to trying to make infertility more bearable for thousands of patients, it is hard to put into words just how much that recognition meant to me. I do know, however, that compassion is an integral part of being a fertility doctor. Compassion is the key.