I HAVE been pondering on the pictures we hold of other people and of ourselves, and how they influence the way we see each other, the way we are with each other and the way we live our lives.

For example, we think that being a doctor is “good”. But being a white, male, upper-middle class specialist with a wife and beautiful well behaved and high-achieving children is like the royal flush in a poker game – you win, you are unbeatable.

If we think that life is a competition (and most of us do), then we have to learn to play the cards we are dealt in life to our best advantage.

Doctor is a great card, which is why so many people want to have it.

My parents were both doctors. My mother is a white Australian and my father was Indian. In the 1950s in Australia, this was a confronting combination for most people – especially their parents. My mother’s mother was horrified and refused to come to their wedding, relenting at the last moment, and turning up in a terrible hat (perhaps her personal form of objection).

For her, the doctor card did not trump the coloured card. But when we children came along, all was forgiven, for the grandchildren card trumped them all.

We think that white Australians can be racist (and they can), but all races can be racist if people identify strongly enough with being a member of their race. My father’s parents were horrified too that he wanted to marry for love and out of his culture, rather than agreeing to the traditional arranged Indian marriage. Again though, the doctor card was played and won and again, grandchildren came up trumps.

We all hold these pictures of “good” and “bad” cards that we are dealt, and they profoundly influence the way we see and relate to ourselves and to all other people.

We judge people on the basis of these pictures, and they are like a veil that we see others through, which is only dispersed as we get to know them as people.

We are given jobs on the basis of these pictures – two people may be equally competent and committed to the job, but you are more likely to get it if you “fit the bill”, which really means you fit the picture of what the employer would like you to look like.

As doctors, we see our patients through these veils too, judging them as they sit in our waiting rooms and walk through our consulting room doors, making assumptions about them based on the way they look.

But do we stop and feel who that person truly is? Do we stop and feel why they are the way they are? What life experiences have they had that have led them to look and behave like this?

Are we willing to look deeper than the colour of their skin, hair, eyes, clothes, their size and shape, to the “them” that is the same in all of us, on the inside?

We, of all people, should know that we are all the same on the inside, for we are intimately acquainted with the human body which, under the skin, looks the same in everyone.

And we also know that we are more than just a physical body … if we were not, why would we make so many choices in defiance of this body, as so many of us do, that end up with us sick and needing to see the doctor?

And looking even deeper, we know that we are even more than this defiant spirit who usually runs the show, for at the heart of us all beats the pulse of life, our soul.

If we stop to feel people first, we are more able to see the truth of who they are, for beauty is not only skin deep – our true beauty comes from within.

Dr Anne Malatt is an ophthalmologist who works in Bangalow, northern NSW.


To find a doctor, or a job, to use GP Desktop and Doctors Health, book and track your CPD, and buy textbooks and guidelines, visit doctorportal.




The Medicare rebate freeze must be lifted in the Federal Budget on 9 May 2017
  • Strongly agree (82%, 212 Votes)
  • Agree (9%, 23 Votes)
  • Strongly disagree (5%, 12 Votes)
  • Disagree (2%, 6 Votes)
  • Neutral (2%, 5 Votes)

Total Voters: 258

Loading ... Loading ...

3 thoughts on “Looking at patients beyond first impressions

  1. Ian Maddocks says:

    Thankyou for this insight. I want to extend it more widely. Many patients are ‘difficult’ – non-compliant, suspicious, confronting, even aggressive. Our response is to feel unappreciated and not respected, and it is easy to become defensive, less committed to their care. They are presumed to have a problem outside of our doctor-patient relationship which is not one we need to engage with, and they are difficult to like. But when you hang in, plumb a little further about the lie situation they are coping with, you will often find a strong element of sympathy emerging, and maybe developing a liking of them which will greatly enhance not only the therapeutic relationship, but your own satisfaction.
    Ian Maddocks

  2. Anne Malatt says:

    Hi Ian, thank you for this expansion. I agree, it is great to include not just how we look, but how we behave. When we behave badly, it is usually for a reason, and it is great to bring observation and understanding to the process, rather than judging and condemning the person for their actions.
    Sympathy? I used to feel it a lot, but I have come to understand that we all make choices that lead us to where we are, and so the less sympathy I feel, and the more I feel equality, compassion and genuine love.

  3. Kylie Fardell says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful article.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.