Improvements in infant surgery (3) – Empathetic doctors

Helen and I recently had lunch with a friend who works in a human relations role for the medical school of one of Australia’s universities.  Among other things we talked about the kind of doctors we have and how we train them.

Sadly, we quickly agreed that many of our doctors leave something to be desired: the human touch.

What our friend observed was more of what I had already learnt from what friends and relatives have told me, from my own observations and from what I read on the internet about the experiences of so many parents of pyloric stenosis babies.  It upsets me to think of the unnecessary and damaging trauma which my own and countless other parents have had to endure.  Many of the posts on this blogsite give examples of this.  It angers me to find that despite decades of medical and technical progress, the medical community does not seem to be able to lift its reputation in the doctor – patient relations area.

Superman MD1What did our friend tell us?

  • That the great majority of medical students are selected on the basis of their academic results in the science and maths subjects.
  • That students whose “people skills” shine hardly ever qualify for medical school.
  • That while they are in medical school, the students are confirmed in their technical knowledge and skills, but that people knowledge and skills rarely get even a place (let alone much support or interest) in the curriculum.
  • That medical students are generally trained to work simply as “scientists” without regard to the human and social attitudes and skills that are expected of ourselves and others as we go about our life and work.
  • That graduates are generally arrogant and dismissive of patients and other medical workers perceived to be “of lower status”.

What do I want with this?

  • I don’t pretend that a sensitive and empathetic person without the ability to master a course of medical studies would make a good medical doctor.
  • I recognize that a good standard of medical training will be most readily accessible by students who are strong in the science-engineering subjects.
  • I believe that much more could be done to make many medical students more like the nicest and best of the people we know, and less like arrogant and robotic geeks… pardon the language, but that’s the situation.

When I was in theological school in the early 70s, an attempt was made to add a unit to the 4-year course that was a mix of counselling, social science, and psychiatry.  It was dropped after a howl of student protest: this was the Vietnam war era, after all!

Nerdy MD2Sadly, many of those who opposed “watering down” the heady mix of Biblical and theological studies with something about basic humanity have not lasted the distance.  Their isolationist view of reality was unsustainable in the long run.  The child abuse problems of the worldwide Catholic Church are a terrible reminder of what can happen when professional “purity” is pursued at the expense of our human needs and values.

Of course, the medical world is unlikely to collapse: we need its many rich resources too much.  Besides this, its muscle and vested interests are vastly more powerful than my small voice and those of mnay thousands of upset and frustrated patients.

But just imagine what Western medical doctors could see happen if they actually wanted and were empowered to “level” with their patients with better listening skills, a more empathetic than dismissive attitude, and a sympathetic understanding of the benefits of competent human interaction!

2 thoughts on “Improvements in infant surgery (3) – Empathetic doctors

  1. Wendy Williams

    A lot more patients would be healing, that’s what you’d get. It matters who our doctor is and his or her attitude toward our well-being and personhood. In fact, I think that a lot of society’s need for pharmaceuticals would diminish because patients would have more faith in their own bodies and ability to heal. That’s what a good doctor can communicate: that the patient him- or herself has A LOT to do with the success of the regimen the doctor offers as a cure or course of maintenance. Medical schools need to require students to take a number of medical humanities courses in order to prepare their hearts for the journey of being a successful doctor. Otherwise, uncompassionate doctors make for stress, which just sickens patients more. I’m sorry to hear little has changed, according to your friend. Hopefully, some other medical schools are working to become more enlightened. I know that the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University in New York State is one of them, as is University of California’s San Francisco campus in California. Sadly though, these are two grains of sand in a huge sand dune.

  2. Fred Vanderbom Post author

    It’s so good to hear that some of the US’s most prestigious medical schools have become more alert to the crying need for doctors to be trained with more emphasis on people skills. We hope this will become more widely recognized and done.
    I fully agree that if a doctor knows how to unlock a client’s inner resources … well that would make that medico so much loved, wanted and respected!


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