COMMENTARY: Doctoring With a Heart

love a changed personWhen you visit a medical specialist, an emergency room, or a patient in the hospital, are you ever struck by a sense that many doctors are so focused on the scientific aspects of diagnosis and treatment of illness or injury that they ignore, maybe even become annoyed by, things like pain, fear, or anxiety?

In her book Medicine as Ministry, Dr. Margaret Mohrmann, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Virginia, proposes a dramatically different perspective. If accepted, it could drastically change the nature of medical training and treatment.

She contends that doctors tend to view their roles and responsibilities too narrowly. The ultimate object of medicine, she says, is not just to diagnose and cure disease, but to alleviate suffering. In other words, doctors should see themselves as healers, not merely scientists.

“The practice of the ministry of medicine,” she adds, “is the practice of paying attention.” Being attentive means sensing, treating seriously, and responding appropriately to the myriad feelings that inevitably accompany illness and injury.

In her view, the most needed remedy for the kinds of suffering doctors face daily is not more or better painkilling drugs, but more genuine caring. She says doctors should listen more even if it makes them weep. She believes true compassion and empathy are healing agents for pain and anxiety. Genuine gestures of concern – from a comforting squeeze of the hand to a follow-up phone call or visit – can be as important as prescriptions and surgical procedures.

I think she’s right. It takes a kind of moral courage for a doctor to keep an open heart. But what a huge difference it would make.

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.

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