Working in Healthcare When You’re Usually the Patient

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I wanted to become a Physiotherapist in my last year of secondary school.  I had previously wanted to become a vet, a marine biologist and a nurse, but the idea of being able to rehabilitate patients really attracted me – I liked the idea of being able to spend time with patients to make their symptoms better through manual techniques or help them get back to participating in everyday life after a major medical event.

I was lucky enough to get into my first choice university, Oxford Brookes, and spent three years studying hard to become a qualified Physiotherapist.  Even though I didn’t really realise it, I had been unwell for a lot of my time at University, experiencing distressing symptoms that were repeatedly told to me as “being normal”.

A big part of my training was working in hospitals and clinics – places I’d actually never really set foot in because I’d never thought I needed to.  I remember my first time on the wards – that “hospital smell”, the noisy chatter of patients and nurses and the bright lights.  There were all sorts things I’d never seen before too – drains, catheters and wounds.  And yes, like most first timers, I fainted.  But I’m so used to the hospital environment by now, it’s like my second home (and in some ways, it really is).

Since qualifying, I’ve worked in various clinics and hospitals, currently as a specialised Orthopaedic and Musculoskeletal Physiotherapist, where I manage patients undergoing surgeries such as knee and hip replacements.  In between working, I’ve been diagnosed with 4 chronic health conditions, been signed off work a few times, undergone a lot of operations and had numerous time off to attend appointments.

It’s like a bus-mans holiday.

Having spent so much time in hospital has worked both in my favour and not.  It often feels like I never leave, and am so familiar with the working process of a hospital I get how long it can take to get things done.  It means that I can tell when something is wrong (for example, blood test results or what they might be thinking is going on) and have often been on the back of other healthcare professionals understanding.  I also unfortunately have the understanding of the need to sometimes “shout” to get what you need, such as second opinions or different referrals.

Another downside to working in healthcare when you’re often needing it, is other peoples expectations.  Whilst my job is not purely medical, I have found there is this expectation that I can diagnose myself and treatment myself – a few times I have been asked for my own opinion on my illness and what I would do.  I have even been asked to assess my own symptoms – I was once sent to A&E via my GP for a nasty kidney infection that would require IV antibiotics, and the junior doctor kept telling me that as I was a Physiotherapist, I should have ruled out back pain before coming here (SPOILER: I definitely didn’t have back pain!).

But, it has done a number of good things that has actually helped me carry out my job in a better way;

  1. It’s given me a great amount of sympathy and empathy – when my patients are upset about their catheter or scared about anaesthetic, I am able to reassure them and guide them as appropriate.  I have found being able to share my story or experience appropriately helps those who are feeling anxious
  2. I have a deeper understanding of pain and the importance of it’s management.  When I was first training, the ability to understand just how bad a patients pain is was hard – other than what I thought was normal, I’d never thought twice about pain.  However, now I’ve experienced horrific pain and live with chronic pain, I’ve found it’s easier to be more empathetic towards a patients pain.  I have also found it easier to educate and advise on management techniques
  3. It’s given me a better understanding of the working processes of the NHS and why some patients qualify for certain things, and some patients don’t.
  4. I have a bigger appreciation for how hard all the staff work.  I’ve met some healthcare professionals that have gone above and beyond for me, and I always aim to reflect this with my patients
  5. I understand what it is like to be a patient.  No one likes being in hospital, do they?  You loose a bit of your independence and even some of your dignity (dependent on what you’re in for).  You are out of your comfort zone with some many unfamiliar faces.  And the fact I’ve been a patient, on the receiving end of all sorts of treatment, helps me reassure patients under my care.

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On the other hand, having a job in the healthcare system has also helped me as a patient.  And whilst healthcare professionals often make the worst patients (trust us, we don’t want to practice what we preach), I have gained a lot of understanding from my job and even the ability to manage my conditions better;

  1. I have a better understanding of why certain tests or treatments need to be done, and why you have to try some things first before getting to the good stuff.
  2. I have so much more understanding for the pressure NHS organisations are under – the demand for appointments has helped me realise when I only really need to be seen and why I may have to wait a bit longer for an appointment or treatment
  3. I know how much everything costs, and why it is so infuriating when an appointment is not kept, or a treatment is wasted, or when A&E is used inappropriately.
  4. I avoid A&E.  This isn’t a stoic measure at all, it’s just being so aware of the pressures on emergency services and the lack of beds has prevented me from going to A&E when I probably could have benefited from it.  The best example?  When I was super poorly with Sepsis, I had to have a paramedic from the NHS 111 service call me and convince me an ambulance was needed (and yes, I knew I was triggering Sepsis and all).  I don’t think you’ll ever meet a healthcare professional who willingly goes to A&E, unless they are missing a limb.
  5. The increased knowledge of the working processes of the NHS I mentioned above has also helped me push past barriers I have had to accessing treatment.  If you know the right people, you can get the right answers.
  6. My clinical knowledge means that healthcare professionals will often have good discussions with me about my illnesses or treatments, as they know I have the clinical knowledge.  This clinical knowledge also comes in handy when a healthcare professional is not being too pleasant towards me – it’s funny how they change when they realise I actually know what they are trying to fool me about
  7. I’ve been able to use my clinical skills and knowledge to help manage my conditions.  The best example of this is with pain management techniques, such as medication, TENS machine and massage.

The other good thing is the never-ending support from my team and colleagues.  I don’t really tell people I work with what’s wrong, unless it’s fairly obvious (e.g. my catheter).  There was a time that I was going to have one of my surgeries at the hospital I worked with because I knew how well the nurses would take care of me (I didn’t go for it in the end – I decided that my colleagues didn’t really need to see my bits!).  There is always access to advice too – our resident doctor always answers my questions and the two gynaecologists I work with are on hand also.

I would never give up my job, and although I am starting to go in different directions under the umbrella of “Physiotherapist”, I’ll always be grateful for the experience it’s given me.  I always feel much better about my situation when I have been able to use it to help someone.

 

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