Many years ago I wrote about my dissatisfaction with my medical school education. In my book, Healing, health and Transformation: New Frontiers in Medicine, in 1990, I wrote in Chapter 2, the Journey from Physician to Healer, the Inhumanity of Being “Objective”
Since starting my clinical rotations I was beginning to see how the process affected doctors-its potential for creating emotional distance between the doctor and patient, and the toll it took on the physician. I saw this evolution in the faces of so many of my classmates. At times it was very frightening. But it did not happen to everyone.
We were taught one of the most important aspects of being a physician was to maintain at all times, and seemingly at all costs, a distant objective, an uninvolved approach to our patients. We were taught to palpate, not to touch. To hear, not to listen. To analyze, not to understand. To be scientific, not to be humane; to be intellectual, rather than emotional; and to be detached, instead of getting involved.
We quickly learned that emotional involvement was wrong, that caring was frivolous, and compassion as unnecessary. To allow anything to interfere with the scientific approach was likened to a traitorous act. Conversations were only for the sake of gaining information concerning the patient’s condition, not for expressing any genuine concern and care for a fellow human being.
I found the irony of this grossly inhumane process overwhelming. In the midst of a dehumanizing atmosphere and environment, we were learning how to treat our fellow human beings. Because modern medicine has a very objective, technology-oriented and impersonal approach, the contradictions merge in a variety of ways, including the way doctors are trained to perform and the way patients are treated more like walking specimens than human beings.
Yet there were some shining examples of physicians who’d managed to remain compassionate, caring, and very humane healers. Ironically, the students and residents tended to gravitate towards them. I once heard a world renowned cancer surgeon talk about an experience he had in medical school that dramatically transformed his professional behavior. This doctor talked about how he tried to impress his resident and attending physician by adapting their arrogant and condescending attitude toward an elderly female patient. He said he’d never forget the way he felt afterwards. He was embarrassed and ashamed of the way he’d treated someone old enough to be his grandmother. He knew better and became committed to giving his patients the consideration and respect they deserved.
Here’s a great video of a talk given by physician and writer Abraham Verghese, MD. He describes our strange new world where patients are merely data points, and calls for a return to the traditional one-on-one physical exam. Modern medicine is in danger of losing a powerful, old-fashioned tool: human touch.