Josh Schwarzbaum, MD, MBA

During a recent visit to the ER, I noticed an interesting phenomenon. Most of my life I’ve been going to the ER but that was as a physician. This time was different. I was on the other side of the bed. 

It occurred to me, two very different things are happening at the same time. As a doctor I may be taking care of 20+ patients, but as a patient my focus is on only one – me. 

For years, I’ve known the frustrations doctors deal with and could simultaneously intellectualize what patients go through but this visit brought a new perspective to light. There are two worlds that collide and are a set up for conflict. 

As a doctor I have to manage competing priorities, take care of many people, evaluate, diagnose and treat. As a patient I don’t really care about how many people the doctor has to see, how many notes he has to write or how many other patients there may be. I care about me. I care about getting the treatment I need, the test that needs to get done or the update about what’s happening to me. 

It’s hard to think of anyone besides myself, the extent of what’s going on in the rest of the emergency room, or the rest of the hospital, and frankly I don’t really care. I want to get the best care for myself and the rest doesn’t really matter. 

If I zoom out though and look at the bigger picture, there’s a system in place, a lot of moving parts, a lot of pieces. A lot of cogs in the wheel, each one of them needing to be aligned to get the end point of getting me feeling better. 

And then I look at it again, from the point of view of the doctor where I have a lot that I need to take care of. A lot of people and their family members to worry about and a lot of shifting priorities. I need to take care of the sickest first while still giving everyone respect and the time they need. This is all without knowing exactly what my patients are going through or the fear they may have. 

So now the two worlds meet. They’re related but have different end goals. On one hand, it’s caring for the many and on the other it’s a hyperfocus on one.  

Where is the resolution? For a doctor who’s never been a patient for a patient who’s never been a doctor how do we make sense of the two? Are there other places in our lives where a similar phenomenon exists? Where two separate worlds come together that may not be in exact alignment?

It seems that the common ground lies in having understanding and having the ability to expand our minds. In the ability to look for a larger picture and for a bigger piece of the pie. This is true not only for doctors and patients but with husbands and wives, parents and children, teachers and students, managers and employees, and the list goes on…

When we look past the surface, past the obvious we’ll start to see there are ALWAYS multiple realities occurring simultaneously. And that our experience of any given “reality” is a function of whatever is in our awareness at that time. 

I may not know exactly what’s going on in the other person’s world but the truth is, I may not even need to. 

Once I know that there are alternatives, whether easily seen or under the surface, I can for a moment pause and take a step back. I can see the situation or person in front of me in a new light. I can see behaviors or processes as a function of their best thinking during that moment. 

With this I begin to see the bigger picture emerge. And even if I don’t know what the “true” reality is, I’ve already begun to see things from a different perspective. A perspective with greater understanding, clarity and from a shared point of view with whoever or whatever is in front of me. 

Dr. Josh Schwarzbaum is a triple board certified physician in emergency medicine, addiction medicine, and emergency medical services. He consults for organizations and coaches individuals helping them find their natural resilience and peace of mind no matter what life brings their way.

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