Education & Connection: The Patient-First Approach to Healthcare

Alex Cohen is a medical student in the University of Vermont Larner College of Medicine Class of 2023. He was recently selected for induction in to the Gold Humanism Honor Society (GHHS) by colleagues in the medical student Class of 2022.

Cohen and students in his class were selected due to “demonstrated excellence in clinical care, leadership, compassion and dedication to service.”

In this post, Cohen writes about what humanism in medicine means to him as he looks toward a future career in pediatrics.

Alex Cohen, wearing a medical student white coat, poses outside with four family member. Cohen is second from the right.
Alex Cohen (second from right) poses with family members after his White Coat Ceremony in October 2020.

 “I want to be able to help people.”

Helping people can often feel like an overwhelming and impossible task—how can I possibly help everyone?  Since I’ve been in medical school that statement has evolved and grown to become more closely aligned with what I believe the job of a physician truly is—educating patients and their families. Through education, physicians can support patients by empowering them to be their own advocates.

A patient and family-centered approach is essential in all fields of healthcare, and especially in the field of pediatrics. I have always been drawn to this subsect of medicine, but seeing the humanistic approach pediatricia take with their families during my clinical clerkship rotations in medical school convinced me that this truly is the right field for me.

During my pediatrics rotation this past year, I was able to spend two weeks doing pediatric primary care, interacting with many kids and their families. I distinctly remember a father coming into the office with his toddler-aged son who had fallen and bumped his head at a playground. Obviously the father was very anxious, despite his son appearing and acting as he normally would. What I enjoyed most about this encounter, was chatting with the father about the examinations we were performing, the reasoning behind these specific examinations, and why, after conducting them, we were quite sure his son would be okay. Before they left, the care team gave the father instructions to keep an eye out for specific symptoms and signs and reasons why he should bring his son back.

I absolutely loved being able to have not only the child as my patient, but also taking care of the father in this anxiety-provoking situation. Myself and other members of the pediatric care team were able to center the visit entirely around the family, and the father left the office not only reassured that his son was okay but empowered by knowing he did the right thing, and armed with the knowledge he needed in order to keep an eye out for concerning potential future symptoms. That knowledge and reassurance is extremely important to have as a parent, and we as pediatricians are in a very unique position to be able to help parents gain that for themselves.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic it has become increasingly more apparent that we, as healthcare professionals, have a responsibility to not only care for our patients, but support our colleagues and recognize that they, too, are human. Becoming a doctor is not an easy path and it is imperative we learn how to take care of ourselves and each other along the way. Taking care of ourselves is a hard job and I am so grateful to my amazing classmates and colleagues (fellow students, physician mentors, administrative staff at Larner Med, nurses, and other hospital staff), friends, and family—without them I certainly would not be where I am.

I have learned a lot over the last three years of medical school about the role I can play in helping my classmates along this challenging path we have chosen for ourselves. Whether that be via a formal route such as working with my classmates and administration to provide free mindfulness resources and developing a panel of physicians to talk about work-life balance, or simply reaching out to check in. Little actions like these go a long way and may just be what someone needs to get through a tough day.

When I feel supported, I have more energy to give to my patients, and if I can help my colleagues build and harness that energy as well, I know I am doing my job not just as a doctor and a peer, but as a friend.   

It is an honor to be able to be a physician-in-training at an institution that recognizes the importance of not only putting the patient first, but also empowers students to reflect on their own well-being and that of their colleagues. These are lessons I will take with me forever and share with friends, family, colleagues, and my future patients and their families.