Collaborating Over Lipstick

Collaborating over lipstick, a story on the patient-physician collaboration

I was asked to give a talk recently, in front of a large crowd of female entrepreneurs. The topic was ‘collaboration’.

When I sat down to put my thoughts in order, I asked myself how collaboration fits into my day-to-day affairs, and the first thing that popped into my head was the one you’d probably think of too, when you imagine a primary care doctor. The collaboration between doctors themselves. I cover this and two other kinds, briefly in my article on Three Important Collaborations in Medicine.

But, though important, my reflexive collaborative example seemed a bit mundane, if not played out. What about the patient? Where does she fit in?

I thought about my earlier day’s work at the office, seeing patient after patient, when one interaction stuck out. As I played it over in my head, a smile crept up on my face and I felt that a-ha moment you feel when experiencing giddiness on a nerdy scale. I had found a fit.

The encounter stuck out because of an innocent little comment about my patient’s lipstick. She sat in front of me, all 89 years of her, and opened up about feeling down. Her eyesight was going, thanks to a condition known as macular degeneration, and she had a hard time coping. As I got up to examine her and stood to her right, I noticed just how beautiful she was close-up. I noticed also that she had tended to her lips- painting them a bright red hue with care; albeit with some of the color drawn outside the edges. It was because of her worsening sight, I assumed. I told her how beautiful she looked and how much I loved that she took care of herself. She valued a feminine touch, and it showed, despite grappling with the worsening sight.

She chuckled to herself, and then again, more audibly this time. Upon seeing my interest peak, she shared the source of her laughter. The other day, she had joined some of her neighbors in the elder care living where she resided. She had gotten through an entire breakfast and an suspenseful game of bingo when another elderly woman approached her, pointing at her face. “Margaret, you drew your eyebrows in with lipstick,” she told her. Indeed, her eyes had tricked her, and she had mistaken her lipstick for the eyebrow pencil, resulting in bright red brows. 

She finished the story and burst out in laughter, and I joined along too. She managed to turn an embarrassing situation into a comical one, and felt no hesitation reliving it. It loosened the air, put smiles on both of our faces, and allowed us to connect on a level that put us both at ease. She had opened up.

A collaboration had been created. The collaboration that’s most important in delivering the best in patient care- the doctor-patient collaboration.

That was it. That was the collaboration I would focus on in my talk. Ultimately, the relationship that’s formed between patient and doctor is the absolute most important one. We make a team- the patient and I- and we move forward together in a unified collaboration in happiness and in health.

* edited to add: patient name and other identifying factors are fictitious in order to adhere to HIPPA.

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