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Rethink Book Club: How to act with empathy
A review of A Fortunate Woman by Polly Morland
This week’s Rethink Book Club meet: Is there one person (or profession) that you really trust? Why? How has your relationship with your local community changed? I’ll be sharing a discussion thread with you on Wednesday so we can chat through the themes from A Fortunate Woman together in more detail.
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Why I picked up this book:
My family was lucky enough to have the same local doctor for over twenty years when I was growing up. I vividly remember Dr. Hyman's surgery with his jar of chocolate buttons carefully dispensed after every visit. He knew my family and our history, both personally and medically. It was a deep accumulated knowledge he developed from our stories and illnesses over the years. Then aged 78, he died. And with his death, his local family practice also died.
For years now, I've been searching for another Dr. Hyman. Sadly, I think they rarely exist these days. Seeing up to fifty patients a day, most doctors have little time for holistic care, and patients rarely see the same doctor twice.
I was talking about this problem with a friend, who recommended I read the memoir A Fortunate Woman by Polly Morland, about a remarkable female doctor who runs a small practice in a rural community in Gloucestershire that she knows inside and out.
I've been thinking a lot about the demise of local relationships – the milkman, the postie, the bank manager, the newsagent, and the doctor. People who were integral to the fabric of communities have been replaced by technology in the name of 'efficiency' and 'cost cutting'. What replaces these social touchpoints? A banking or telehealth app doesn't know when someone hasn't taken in the milk for weeks or has not been down the road to get the paper in months.
What this book made me rethink:
In A Fortunate Woman many of the patients in the story survive because of the doctor's skill and empathy in understanding:
"not just a medical history but also a personal history, a winding corridor of experience and emotion, the patient's whole life […] talking to people, listening to their stories, every bit as much as it's about clinical examination."
In so many areas of our lives, shared stories and relationships are given way to impersonal yet efficient transactions, in this instance, medical transactions. Without widespread recognition of this systemic problem, we might not even notice what we're losing.
It reminded me of a central theme in my work - money is the currency of transactions; trust is the currency of interactions. The same idea applies from a banker to an entrepreneur to a doctor.
One powerful idea I'll take with me:
How powerful stories and histories are to the bond of trust between doctors, their patients, and any leader and their teams.
In her epilogue, Morland quotes John Berger (the book is a part tribute to John Berger's A Fortunate Man, published in 1967):
"We in our society do not know how to acknowledge, to measure the contribution of an ordinary working Doctor. By measure, I do not mean calculate according to a fixed scale but rather take the measure of."
The value of these relationships is difficult to measure in hard figures because society has become focused on performance metrics skewed toward results and outcomes that are easier to quantify. This shift will have an impact on all of us at some point.
Three words that sum up this book:
Poignant. Uplifting. Fascinating
Why I'm recommending this book:
A Fortunate Woman is based on a doctor's story, but at its heart, it's about how we can relate to other people, regardless of our profession, with warmth, empathy, and decency. It's about earning trust through listening to what people say, really listening, and not waiting for a gap in the conversation to say our thing.
You'll learn more from this book about empathy and the nature of earning trust than from any business or leadership book I've read.
It's an intimate, beautifully written book about so much more than being a doctor in a complex world.
You'll enjoy this book if you also enjoy:
Further recommendations about doctor-patient trust:
Have you read this book? If so, what did you think? If not, do the ideas resonate with you? I’d love to hear your thoughts - let’s chat below.