Today’s Star Columnist: Dr Mary Wren

Dr Mary Wren
Dr Mary Wren

In my work I have the privilege of seeing patients from many countries and cultures.

It is fascinating to find out about how health systems work in other countries and how our upbringing and experience affects our reality.

So, for example, the patients I see from Eastern Europe are used to a system of specialists only, where the patient has to diagnose the problem and then see a doctor in that subject. If I think I have a heart problem I see a cardiologist.

The concept of general practice and doctors who look at the person as a whole is unknown to them. This means they see me and expect I will refer to several consultants for them, when I can help with most of the problems myself.

Then there are some patients from Asia who are used to tests for everything. For them an MRI scan is the first thing to request. In their country scans are cheap and accessible. Some of these patients also have no experience of emotional and mental health issues with the emphasis being on physical tests and physical treatments. So they expect that I can get an MRI scan if they want one and are bemused if I suggest a problem may be helped by counselling.

Some countries use drugs we never use here. Other countries have more of an emphasis on herbal treatments. Others focus on spiritual causes and consult the witch doctor before attending a hospital.

It makes me realise that we can think we know everything here in the West, but maybe we don’t. It also makes me think that we can have set ideas about health based on our upbringing, experience, culture and what we read.

However, others may have different ideas and experiences. Instead of being arrogant and say I know it all, it is really important to be willing to be open-minded and admit that sometimes I don’t.

There are some things in medicine we can be pretty sure are accurate –a bacterial throat infection gets better with penicillin, for example. In other areas we are much less sure. In the ebola crisis health workers from the West have been able to educate and provide help. Maybe there are other areas where we can learn from other countries and cultures. The danger comes when we think we have nothing to learn.