I'm an individual – not just a patient in the system: Angela Camber on the importance of treating 'the whole person'

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Angela Camber is a patient representative on the British Heart Foundation Council and spoke at our event, Joining up physical and mental health care, on 8 March 2016.

Angela Camber

My experience and journey as a patient together form the underlying reason for my eagerness to contribute to the debate on where the patient sits within the health care system. I would argue that this person sits squarely in the centre of any debate about health care. I use the word person, not patient, in a bid to encourage medical practitioners to think about the human being they are treating as a person.

That's a whole person - not a heart patient, a mental health patient, a cancer or diabetes patient, and so on.

As it happens I am a heart patient; it was my long, sometimes nerve-wracking and frequently frightening experiences that made me want to do something, anything, to help support people who may be going through similar things to me, and to speak on their behalf. My journey is not over yet! This is why I am very committed to looking at the patient perspective with, and working on behalf of, the British Heart Foundation.

What I cannot fully understand is why a case has to be made for integrating physical and mental health care: it should be an integral part of what patients can and should expect. I genuinely look forward to the day when one can go to the doctor in the knowledge of being met with an empathic listening, lateral approach, which looks at the service user as a whole person with unique needs and characteristics. This should be a given. I want to feel confident that those treating me are able to look at me as a whole, not as someone who may have a medical, emotional or psychological problem, of which I may well not be aware. My symptoms may even be unexplained. Then what? What is to be gained from not looking at me holistically? I'm not a heart patient or a mental health patient. I'm me. When I first sit down in front of a doctor and am asked: 'How are you?' I want that question to mean, quite literally, what is being asked, with the emphasis on you, meaning all of you.

I am reminded of my inpatient experience of post-operative care following my first open heart operation. I felt very low, tearful and sorry for myself. The cardiologist came to see me and made the mistake of asking how I was feeling. I promptly burst into tears and was not given the chance to tell him how grim I felt. He simply told me that I had been in touch with my mortality and that he had come to set up a blood transfusion. So much for integrated care!

If I had only been told a little more about common after-effects of heart surgery, it might have helped, instead of which I ended up convincing myself that I was descending into a frightening depression. I knew what to expect physically, but my fear of what lay ahead was never acknowledged. I once had what I would call a near-perfect experience. I needed to be admitted to hospital quickly. The cardiologist actually took the trouble to acknowledge my fear, anxiety and stress and asked me how I felt about having to be admitted yet again. The fact that my heart and my state of mind were being considered simultaneously and that I was being treated as an individual, not as a heart patient, meant a great deal to me. This type of caring care should not be utopia, it should be an achievable reality. Surely what were talking about is the importance of our overall wellbeing, within which there must be no room for mental and physical health to be treated as separate entities.

This article was originally published as one part of two in The King's Fund Insight magazine, summer 2016. The accompanying piece was by Chris Naylor on bringing together physical and mental health.