Commencement Speaker Challenges Graduating Students to Keep Patient at Center of All They Do

By April Wilkerson 
Writer, OU College of Medicine

During the Commencement ceremony for the Class of 2015, graduating medical students were challenged to balance “21st-century bluster and complexity with pre-modern serenity and graciousness.”

OU College of Medicine faculty member Steve Blevins, M.D., speaks to the Class of 2015 during Commencement on May 30.

The class chose one of their faculty members to serve as Commencement speaker: Steve Blevins, M.D., associate professor of medicine and associate dean for medical education. Blevins painted the picture of today’s technology-laden world of health care, but advised students that it doesn’t have to mean a loss of human connection with the patient.

 “Health care today, especially in the hospital setting, is anything but quiet and serene,” he said. “Phones are ringing, televisions are blaring, machines are beeping, vacuums are humming, and code blues are descending from the sky. There are notes to read and notes to write, orders to place and consultations to make. And all of this involves staring at a computer screen until you are completely blind.

 “Technology is alluring, and in health care, it can easily displace the patient and occupy a limelight of its own,” Blevins said. “We see this when information from the electronic medical record replaces the patient’s spoken story. When expensive tests replace the physical examination. When printed reports replace dialogue between physicians. And when endless interruptions make listening to the patient almost impossible. Virtual reality trumps reality, and the patient slowly disappears. It’s a terrible trade-off because the most important tool we have in health care is the conversation between patient and doctor. That conversation is by far the most effective diagnostic test, it is sometimes the most effective therapy, and it can be the greatest source of joy for doctor and patient alike. That conversation is sacred, and it should be treated reverentially with time and space and peace.”

Members of the Class of 2015 prepare for Commencement ceremonies at the Civic Center Music Hall.

But Blevins wasn’t suggesting that such a connection could only be made in the time of Norman Rockwell, or that physicians need to eschew technology. Instead, he challenged the newly minted physicians to remember the patient who came to see them.

Blevins knows the physician-patient connection can still be established because he has experienced both sides of the equation. Seven years ago, when he was 45 years old, Blevins was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He was terrified and didn’t know what to expect from the neurologist as he sat in his waiting room. His experience turned out to be life-affirming.

 “He listened to me, uninterrupted, for what seemed like a lifetime,” Blevins said. “He didn’t roll out a keyboard; he looked at me and listened. When my story was finished, he examined me, then he sat back down and started to speak to me. Slowly, clearly and calmly. But what I remember most is not his words, but his manner: gentle, comforting and very quiet. For the first time since being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, I felt tremendous relief, not because of anything he said or did, but because of the sheer tranquility of the moment. Having my doctor listen to me in a quiet room without interruption, without being rushed, was enormously therapeutic. No diagnostic tests, no medication, no consultation could have done more for me at that moment. To me, it was health care at its finest: simple, elegant, unadorned.

 “So, my advice to the Class of 2015: Don’t get swept away by the tornado of health care. Don’t let the sound and light, the documentation and regulation, all the noise of health care, pull you away from what’s really important. Enjoy the technology that surrounds you and take advantage of every scientific advancement that comes your way. But keep in mind that at the center of it all is a patient, a human soul, often frail, sometimes frightened, who may just need a break from all the commotion.”