Patients require compassion, not just competence, from doctors


By Eric Nelson | | Twitter

PETALUMA, CA, July 21, 2014 – True story: A man who severely cut his hand while using a table saw ran screaming into the emergency room of a local hospital. The attending doctor asked that he be given a dose of morphine to calm him down. When he continued screaming, he was given a second dose. And then another. And then another. Realizing that the drug was having absolutely no effect, the doctor put his hands on the man’s shoulders, looked him in the eye and said, “You’re going to be just fine.” Immediately the man relaxed and fell asleep.

Apparently what the doctor had to offer – at least initially – and what this man needed were two very different things.

According to Samyukta Mullangi, an MD-MBA candidate at Harvard, it’s incidents like this that point to a “seismic cultural shift” in how doctors treat patients. “Where previously a physician may have been expected to possess intelligence and integrity,” she writes in a column published on KevinMD, “now the third, empathy, has risen to equal if not greater importance.”

Perhaps what we’re seeing is not so much a reordering of priorities as a return to what historically has proven to be an exceptionally effective approach to health care – not simply as a means of comforting the sick and suffering, but effecting bona fide physical healing as well. “The secret of the care of the patient,” said Francis Peabody during a lecture he gave at Harvard Medical School in 1925, “is in caring for the patient.”

Some years ago a good friend found herself on the receiving end of just this type of care. She had been hit by a car and injured her arm. X-rays at a nearby clinic revealed multiple fractures in her forearm, wrist and hand. Due to extenuating circumstances, an appointment was made to have the arm operated on in five days.

During this time she received help from a member of her Christian Science church whose approach to the case included a generous dose of prayer-inspired compassion, with no further medical intervention. By the time she was examined again at the clinic, her arm had been completely healed. A second set of X-rays confirmed what her doctor described as “a perfect mend.”

While cases like this may be out-of-the-ordinary, they’re certainly not unprecedented. And even if a wholly prayer-based approach to health and healing isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who hasn’t felt the health-inducing effect of someone expressing genuine concern for his or her well-being in times of physical and emotional need.

The good news is that even though empathy and compassion are in high demand, they’re something all of us – not just doctors – have to offer. And the effects, while maybe difficult to quantify within a strictly medical environment, are undeniable.

Perhaps a greater awareness of this fact will serve to increase and broaden the use of such uplifted and uplifting qualities of thought and help to improve the health of so many millions in need.

Eric Nelson’s columns on the link between consciousness and health appear regularly in a number of local and national online publications. He also serves as the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California. Follow him on Twitter @norcalcs.

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