Some become doctors because they are called by God. Others because they are called by their parents. And others still, by both.
For ever so long, medicine was the career of choice of immigrant Asian communities. Makes sense. If you want to gain acceptance in a community, make sure your children gain the power of life and death over the local populace. And then there is the money and prestige, of course.
So all sorts of people end up doing medicine for all sorts of reasons. One is surprised to find folks who are really called to practice medicine.
I was having lunch with such a doctor a few days ago. A good friend, he had gone through all the hoops needed to get his specialist degree. He is now a trainer of doctors in training.
A true teacher teaches way beyond his or her prescribed subject. Apart from lecturing in his specialization, he had become a mentor to a number of his students. He said that a large part of his work was helping his students work through their feelings of disillusionment about the practice of medicine. I am glad he was there for them. I also have my theory as to a key source of their disillusionment.
I fear that modern medicine is too enamoured with technology and biochemistry, so enamoured that it often factors people out of the picture. We run the danger of doctors who know the latest drugs, who have the best equipment, and who know the most up to date techniques, but who are unable to relate to the patient as a human being.
In a recent article in Newsweek, “We All Need a Dose of the Doctor” (October 4, 2004, International Edition), Michael C. Miller, M.D. writes:
“A founding insight of mind-body medicine is that everyone needs a dose of the doctor, even when state-of-the-art tests and treatments are available. Patients who have a good and trusting relationship with a clinician are more satisfied, studies show—and satisfied patients get better clinical results.”
“A healthy doctor-patient relationship can also give consolation when bad news comes. The relationship itself provides an emotional safety net.”
I have written on this before and I get challenged, often by surgeons for some reason, who ask me that when I need a life saving operation, whom will I turn to? A mediocre surgeon with a high EQ? Or a technically superior surgeon with poor relational skills?
My usual answer immediately reveals the idealist in me, because invariably I will reply, “why must I choose between the two?” The implication of the challenge is that if I am forced to choose, I will choose technique over relationship. The implication is that we should view technique and relationship as two separate things, and that we are free to choose between the two. Such an approach violates what it means to be human.
Miller goes on to remind us:
“?as science confirms the power of the healing relationship, other forces are conspiring to undermine it. Health systems can leave patients and doctors feeling stressed out and alienated from one another. Relationships take time. Fifteen minutes may be enough to diagnose an infection and dash off a prescription. It’s rarely enough to make sense of another person’s experience, convey that understanding or act as an advocate.”
I was having a chat with a psychiatrist friend. He had signed up for a seminar with a world-renowned practitioner in his field. During question time, my friend had asked about the role of the spiritual dimension in psychiatric practice. He was shushed down.
Modern medicine may be able to give you the biochemical basis for your mental pain, and procedures and medications to alleviate your pain. But often the real issues are elsewhere. Why should I suffer? Why should I get well?
The journey to wellness includes the need to make sense of one’s experience. And that requires the help of safe relationships. And that requires time. And that is part of the problem.
My lunch companion and I were fully aware of the demands made on doctors in public hospitals. The daily case load is impossible. There are just too many patients who need to be attended to. How can one find the time to relate to all of them?
His advice to his students was that out of ten, maybe you find one that you relate to with a bit more depth. It was the old “I can’t do everything but I’ll do something” approach. And it was wisdom.
We have all sorts of medical equipment and drugs that our forefathers could only dream of. We should be profoundly grateful for all of them. But we mustn’t allow them to lull us into thinking that technique, machines and biochemistry have all the answers to humankind’s ailments.
People want to make sense of their experiences. They want to make sense of their medical conditions. They want to make sense of their lives.
Responsible medicine should take this need seriously. Christian doctors and scientists should support this wholistic approach to medicine. The Christian community should be part of any attempted solution. The doctors and nurses can’t do it alone.
Unfortunately, it is often much easier to prescribe medication. It is much harder to prescribe ourselves. But that’s the Jesus way.
Your brother, Soo-Inn Tan