Physician viewpoint: How pizza and coffee helped me see patients in new light

Understanding that patients have challenges that make it hard to prioritize health can help physicians connect with them and provide better care, a physician wrote in a piece on

The piece was written by Jason Han, MD, a resident in cardiothoracic surgery in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. 

Dr. Han discussed a situation where he encouraged a patient who had early signs of cardiovascular disease to take care of himself better.

The patient said he was feeling down about his poor health but insisted he could not find the time and motivation he needed to change his circumstances.

"I tried my best to be kind, and not let my frustration show," Dr. Han recounted. "'What could be more important than maintaining your health?' I asked him."

The patient shrugged.

When Dr. Han left the patient's room, he realized he didn't have time for a real lunch or breakfast.

"Skipping a proper breakfast meant I had an extra 10 minutes of sleep, which I always need," he wrote. "I ran to the cafeteria and grabbed a sad-looking slice of cold pizza that apparently nobody else wanted. I congratulated myself for remembering to dilute yet another cup of coffee with cold water so I wouldn't burn myself as I drank it down. I dined while climbing back up the stairs to the ICU, savoring a few quiet minutes."

The experience isn't uncommon for new physicians as they adjust to their jobs, and skipping meals or sleep is standard behavior, Dr. Han said.

But in that moment, Dr. Han said he realized he was violating the advice he had just given his patient.

"I used to have a hard time understanding patients who carried on with their unhealthy behaviors, even after being diagnosed with a disease," he said. "Now I understand that we all have our own reasons for failing to do what's best for our health. Understanding that my patients — just like me — have challenges that make it hard to prioritize health helps me to connect with them. As a physician, I can provide better care if I try to understand what's holding my patient back from making healthy choices."

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