The first frost of winter has settled on the ground and our country takes a short break for the holidays. Thanksgiving Day is a time of reflection, gratitude, and the appreciation for our health, family, and relationships. Unfortunately, this brief idyllic moment is soon trampled by the frantic rush of consumers eager to purchase new [insert products here] during holiday sales events. There are newspaper headlines of people injuring each other at supermarkets for a good deal on a toaster oven. I’m sure I’m not the only one who finds this display of behavior unnerving. This insidious growth of a culture of greed and desperation may be the symptom of a larger social sickness, but it also raises the concern for our dissatisfaction at large. The consumeristic aspect of our culture often blinds us to the bigger picture. As young physicians, health professionals, and community leaders we are in the position to bring new perspective to how our patients understand health, life, relationships, and its various meanings. By redirecting our focus we may uncover what we are really looking for may already be within our possession.
The strongest force behind medicine is still the human element. The patient-physician bond is one of the most trusting and intimate professional relationships, and the human hand still the most versatile instrument. Yet there seems to be a dwindling priority placed on cultivating and strengthening this interaction. Modern medicine invests much of its resources in engineering more complicated machines and integrating increasingly complex technology into hospital systems, despite the rather elementary evidence that people simply prefer a doctor who is good at listening. Patients are more satisfied with their medical visit if they know that their physician was at full attention during their encounter. Many highly trained specialists focus exclusively on developing a specific skill set, but patients tend to judge the quality of their doctor by his or her demeanor and ability to communicate, rather than their vast knowledge of scientific detail.
Perhaps more technology is not the best solution for the problems in medicine. It can help us facilitate communication and perform difficult procedures, yes, but it can also distract from the real issues in our field. People want to be heard, they want to recognized and affirmed by a deep and personal longing for interaction, they want to feel as though the physician treating them has given his or her entire mind over to their condition for at least a few minutes. These are not complex procedures. There is comfort in the touch of the physical exam that cannot be sufficiently described by scientific research; there is an unspoken and highly esteemed sense of trust that builds in the dialogue between patient and physician, and it does not require an iPhone app. It would be careless and unfortunate to overlook this part of our profession.
A few weeks ago I was struck by a story that made headlines about Pope Francis’ reaction to a man covered in disfiguring boils. This man has been suffering from Neurofibromatosis type I for several decades of his life, leaving him with multiple large tumors covering his face. Let alone the physical difficulty of living with his condition, this man had endured years of psychological injury from social stigmatization. While visiting the Vatican he approached the Pope and was shocked to receive an embrace, a simple gesture that his illness often prevented from ever happening. This act had moved the man to tears and he eventually had the chance to tell his story. Pope Francis may not be a medical doctor by training, but his example of the power of human touch demonstrates the simplicity in recognizing and attending to the suffering of another can actually begin some part of the healing process.
As we continue in our journey of service, it would be wise for us to remember that the heart of medicine is already within us. By being present in the lives of others, we become the medicine. Everything else is just an instrument.
Christopher Salib, MSII