Aiden Meade – a man with the gift of listening
The example of a modest man reminded me a couple of days ago of one of the most valuable skills a person can possess – the ability to listen.
His name was Aiden Meade. He was my wife’s uncle and godfather. He died late last week, and we joined his family and hundreds of friends and former patients at his funeral in Dublin.
Aiden was a physician. As his son Brian – who now runs the family practice his father founded – pointed out in his eulogy, Aiden achieved much in his life. He was not just an ordinary doctor. He chaired a number of professional bodies and started what became a nationwide scheme for assisting doctors suffering from physical and mental illness. I have a personal reason for being grateful to him, since he inspired my wife to go into medicine.
But impressive as Aiden’s achievements were, one thing Brian said particularly struck a chord. And that was the many lives he saved by his expertise in diagnosis. Not by bundling his patients off for tests for a number of potential ailments, but by picking up cues from what they were telling him. In other words, by listening – really listening.
Anyone who has ever tended to a sick child will know how quickly that child can go from slightly ill to very ill. Meningitis, for example, can kill within hours. So lives depend not only on the accuracy of diagnosis, but on speed – in other words, on the ability of the primary healthcare nurses and physicians.
These days, doctors are formally trained in communications skills. In Aiden’s day those skills were passed on by example and by mentoring. I’m not sure we’re much further on from then. And it’s not necessarily through any shortcomings on the part of the doctors.
In the United Kingdom, according to the BBC, general practitioner appointments last an average of twelve minutes, although theoretically doctors have the flexibility to give longer consultations as the situation demands.
But my experience of GP consultations is that one often gets the feeling that there is a time constraint to the visit. Which there is. If every patient appointment took half an hour, surgeries would be full of frustrated people still waiting to be seen long after their appointment times.
So the doctor’s job is to cut to the chase, and do the best they can in the time allowed. All the more important that the doctor’s antennae are finely tuned to pick up verbal and non-verbal cues that might lead to a fast diagnosis. Hence the importance of listening skills.
I suspect that another reason why Aiden Meade was so loved by his patients was that he had the knack of making people feel that he was their friend. That was a gift that our local GP, Alan Stedman, who is now retired, also had. Aiden and Alan practiced their medicine at a time when home visits were frequent, and if your doctor has been to your home and seen you in their surgery, it’s easy to see how a deeper relationship will build up over twenty or thirty years.
But again, such a relationship only exists if the doctor remembers stuff about you beyond your ailments and your blood results. And that takes listening skills.
Nowadays home visits are rare, and are often carried out by a locum. And when you have to wait for days or even weeks for a GP appointment, you will usually take an appointment with the first doctor available. And that person may not be “your doctor”. So consultations tend to be relatively impersonal, with the doctor relying on medical records and what he or she hears during the visit, rather than being able to draw on a much richer store of knowledge.
No doubt there are still GP practices where the doctors stay put for decades, and where the patient population is relatively stable. Where I live, doctors seem to come and go, and population turnover is quite high. In other parts, such as rural areas, I would imagine that the old doctor-patient familiarity still flourishes.
The ability to listen in medicine has other benefits, especially for the doctors. In the United States, where malpractice litigation is an industry in itself, studies have shown that doctors that spend the most time with their patients are the least likely to be sued when something goes wrong. Why? Because of the strength of the personal relationship.
I once heard a story in Saudi Arabia that dramatically illustrates this. I visit the country on a regular basis to do workshops on soft skills. One of my clients is a major hospital group. During a communications workshop a surgeon told me what happened when a young girl had an operation that left her permanently disabled.
The head of the surgical team invited the parents to meet with his team and hear an explanation of what went wrong. Before giving the explanation, the surgeon invited the father to speak about his daughter. The father rose to his feet, and for the next twenty minutes walked around the room. Through his tears he spoke about her character, her hopes and fears, and the ambitions her parents had for her, which were now unlikely to be fulfilled. All the while the medical team listened in silence. They made no attempt to interrupt.
Eventually, when he sensed that the father had said what he wanted to say, the surgeon gently ushered him back to his seat. When he offered to explain how the operation had gone wrong, the father raised his hands and said “no, I don’t need to know. It is God’s will. Thank you for letting me speak”.
That story can be understood in a cultural context of respect for doctors and of a fatalism born of the father’s faith. But it’s by no means typical. In Saudi Arabia, medical malpractice claims are on the rise, just as they are in many other parts of the world. But in this case, as the teller relates it, the critical factor was that the father wanted to be heard, and was heard. And that was enough for him.
Listening is a priceless skill, and an essential aspect of being human. At this time of the year, when people get together to celebrate Christmas or just to take advantage of a welcome few days of holiday, it’s often easier to broadcast rather than to receive.
It’s not just patients that need to be listened to. Negotiations, diplomatic initiatives and political solutions never succeed unless the parties involved listen to each other. Families won’t resolve their differences without parents, children and siblings being prepared to suspend their opinions and prejudices and listen to each other with fresh ears.
The example of a modest and open-minded family doctor loved and respected by all who knew him serves as a reminder of how much his listening skills are needed today – in Syria, Iraq, Paris, Beirut and in troubled cities throughout the world.
Not a bad note on which to wish Aiden’s grieving family, all my friends of whatever faith and all of you who visit this blog my heartfelt season’s greetings.