It got so bad that we finally posted signs throughout the office: Please turn off cell phones during your visit with the doctor. Still they persisted. Parents and adolescents alike would reach for their phone when the jingle sounded, mumbling an apology as they flipped open the device: “Sorry, I forgot.”
For me the students were the last straw. A number of them had telephoned the office, asking if they might arrange a time to shadow me and observe my interactions with patients. They were required to log so many hours of observation prior to launching into their clinical rotations.
The students came on separate days. Each laid her coat on the extra chair in my office. Each extracted her cell phone from the pocket, placed it on the chair and proceeded to check it periodically. If the phone buzzed or beeped, the student would snatch it up and quickly peer at the incoming number. Sometimes they text-messaged an immediate reply; sometimes they actually took the call. “Sorry,” they’d say, “I’ve got to answer this one. It’s important.”
What they were really saying, of course, was that their call was more important than the educational discussion at hand. Even though I had granted their request and carved out time in my already busy schedule for them, their time was more important than my time. For the sake of their convenience, I had unwittingly agreed to inconvenience myself.
Maggie Jackson sheds light on this cultural phenomenon in her recently published book, Distracted: the erosion of attention and the coming dark age. In Jackson’s view, an inability to focus our attention on the task at hand has become a widespread social problem. We constantly face distractions throughout our day. Jackson believes that we need to relearn how to think deeply and filter out these distractions in our day to day existence.
Contemporary culture has devolved into narcissism. Each of us has chosen to go his own way. You might say that, as a society, we have developed widespread attention deficit disorder. Collectively, we have lost the ability to wrestle with issues on a deeper level. We skim the headlines, check the stats, glimpse the twitter, then cut and run. Although the lake of available information has grown exponentially, for many of us this body of knowledge remains shallow indeed.
Our English word attention derives from the Latin, attendere: to stretch toward something or someone. It takes a certain amount of effort to attend to another person. Paying attention to the patient is one of the basic tenets of empathetic medical care. When we focus on what another person is telling us, we send a covert message through our posture and eye contact that we value that person as a human being. Contrariwise, when we brush them off we give the subliminal signal that we really don’t care. In the common vernacular, we exhibit rude behavior.
Attention skills can be cultivated by practicing the art of observation. Exposure to the natural world works as well as a dose of medication to improve concentration. Harvard researchers demonstrated that physically fit children did better academically on standardized achievement tests. The New York Times reports that a recent study published in the journal Pediatrics found that the attention span of school-aged children improved after physical activity on the playground.
Thirty-eight years ago as an undergraduate student I wrote a paper on the value of athletic activity in the liberal arts curriculum. My premise was that regular organized physical activity enhanced the student’s academic performance and sharpness of thought. At that time there was little original research to support my thesis. Reading through the Times article, I now feel somewhat vindicated.
And as for the students, those presently knocking on my door seeking opportunities to fulfill their prerequisites, I am sorry to report that their pleas have lately fallen on deaf ears. I’ve decided that I need some quality time to sit down and think about it.
One should not enter into such contractual relationships without giving it a good deal of thought—preferably with no distractions.