The Optimized Doctor

Audrey Hepburn’s lessons for a COVID clinic


From the ash of our post “coron-apocalyptic” world, we emerge. It’s back to work, to life in a new normal. Patients are still scarce and scared, as are some doctors. Queues of patients wait to clear security and enter the sterile area at every medical office. Water bottles are allowed, fevers and visitors are not. Those who fail clearance or who are afraid to be seen in person must be treated virtually. In this context, virtually means by telephone or video, yet, aptly, it also means “nearly or almost,” as in we can nearly or almost treat them these ways. We’ve emerged safely, but we’ve lost sensibility. Because of this, what’s important in the doctor-patient relationships will drift a bit. Clinical acumen and technical skill won’t be enough. Successful practices will also have grace.

Hans Gerber/CC BY-SA 4.0

If your image of grace is Audrey Hepburn gliding along Fifth Avenue in a long black dress and elbow-length gloves, you’re in the right place. Ms. Hepburn embodied elegance and decorum and there are lessons to be drawn from her. Piling your hair high and donning oversized sunglasses along with your face mask would be to miss the point here though. Ms. Hepburn dressed exquisitely, yes, but her grace came from what wearing a difficult-to-walk-in dress meant to us, not to her. Appearance, self-control, and warmth are what made her charismatic.

To appear urbane requires effort; it’s the effort that we appreciate in someone who is graceful. When you’re thoughtful about how you look, you plan ahead, you work to look polished. In effect, you’re saying: “As my patient, you’re important enough for me to be well dressed.” It is a visible signal of all the unobservable work you’ve done to care for them. This is more critical now that our faces are covered and concern for infection means wearing shabby hospital scrubs rather than shirt and tie.

Effort is also required for telephone and video visits. In them, our doctor-patient connection is diminished – no matter how high definition, it’s a virtual affair. Ms. Hepburn would no doubt take the time to ensure she appeared professional, well lit, with a pleasing background. She’d plan for the call to be done in a quiet location and without distraction.

Whether in person or by phone, grace, as Ms. Hepburn demonstrated, is physical awareness and body control. She would often be completely still when someone is speaking, showing a countenance of warmth. She’d pause after the other person completed a thought and before replying. In doing so, she conveyed that she was present and engaged in what was being said. It is that confidence and ease of manner we perceived as grace.

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio, director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego.

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio

I thought about this the other day during a mixed clinic of telephone and face-to-face visits. I had on my wrinkle-free scrubs (I could do better). I was listening to a patient describe all possible triggers for her hand dermatitis. My urge to interrupt grew with each paragraph of her storytelling. “Be patient,” I thought, “be at ease with her rambling. ... When she stops, thank her as if you were looking her in the eye acknowledging how interesting her observations were.” This is not just good manners, it’s the essence of grace: The art of showing how important others are to you.

Our world needs grace more than ever and what better place to start but with us. In pleasing, assisting, and honoring them, our patients can be reassured that we can and will care for them. Make Ms. Hepburn proud.

“For beautiful eyes, look for the good in others; for beautiful lips, speak only words of kindness; and for poise, walk with the knowledge that you are never alone.” – Audrey Hepburn

Dr. Benabio is director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego. The opinions expressed in this column are his own and do not represent those of Kaiser Permanente. Dr. Benabio is @Dermdoc on Twitter. He has no disclosures related to this column. Write to him at [email protected] .

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