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Nancy L. Snyderman, MD: Connect with Patients

AIDS, and the treatment of AIDS patients, changed the face of medicine forever. Like polio before it, AIDS emphasized the role of the patient as disease vector. Physicians learned to glove and gown, put on visors, and physically defend themselves from their patients and potential infection. Neither patients nor physicians have ever recovered from unintended traumatic separation.

“I spend more time teaching young surgeons to be human beings than teaching them anything else,” said head and neck cancer surgeon Nancy L. Snyderman, MD, chief medical editor for NBC News and faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. “If we are going to help our patients, really help them, the gloves have to come off and the barriers between us have to come down. We have to sit down and physically touch our patients.”

AAO 2013 Nancy L. Snyderman, MD

Nancy L. Snyderman, MD, spoke about the importance of relating to your patients on a human level during her John Conley, MD Lecture on Medical Ethics Sunday.

Dr. Snyderman delivered the annual John Conley, MD Lecture on Medical Ethics during the Opening Ceremony on Sunday morning. She is one of the most visible physicians in the mainstream media. There are surprising similarities between otolaryngology and television, Dr. Snyderman said. Good physicians and good reporters both take complicated topics and explain them in non-condescending ways to convey what is most important.

“First and foremost, I am a physician,” she said. “Being on television has made me a better physician because it helps me communicate more effectively. And being a physician has made me a better journalist because it helps me pick out what is truly important from the mass of detail and complexity that is part of every patient and every case.”

AIDS had a second influence on medicine, she continued. Before AIDS, patients listened to physicians and did what they were told, or not. But they seldom questioned conventional medical wisdom. That changed with AIDS.

“Patients, for the very first time in history, demanded a seat at the table,” Dr. Snyderman said. “They told physicians that real people were smart enough to understand the research, smart enough to understand clinical information, smart enough to be part of the decision-making process. Medicine changed forever.

“It didn’t take long to realize that the best medicine is not trickle-down. The best medicine happens when the patient is an integral part of the process. We all, as physicians, need to re-embrace the physician-patient relationship. It doesn’t matter who the patient is. We are the guys to charge into the fire to help and ask questions later.”

That attitude of patients first is as true in politics as it is in disasters, war zones, and physician offices. As a journalist, Dr. Snyderman said she is non-partisan on the Affordable Care Act. As a physician, she said, it is important to provide humane, affordable, and accessible healthcare for everyone, regardless of politics or other obstacles.

“Young physicians, physicians in the springtime of their careers, have been given great gifts,” she said. “You have won the gene pool prize of a great brain. That great brain is what got you into medical school, into residency, into fellowship programs.

“With that great prize, you get to clean up a little of the mess that those of us in the autumn or even the winter of our careers have left behind. What you have to remember is that there is always something you can do for other people. I get the fact that these are dicey times. But we didn’t go into medicine to play politics. We went into medicine to help people. Remember that always. Being a physician is one of the greatest gifts that can be bestowed on mankind.”