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Practicing Humanistic Medicine

Dean Rothman

One of our school of medicine’s founding fathers, William Osler, was an advocate of patient-centered care before the term even existed in the late 19th century. He once said: “He who studies medicine without books sails an uncharted sea, but he who studies medicine without patients doesn’t go to sea at all.” He also said: “Listen to your patient. He is telling you the diagnosis.”

Today, one of our institutional priorities is to be the national leader in the provision and teaching of patient- and family-centered care. And many of us in the profession are wrestling with how to ensure that we balance cutting-edge medicine and lifesaving technologies with the need for a human touch and listening to what a patient wants and values.

On one hand, the central precept of the profession is compassion. Many of us enter the field of medicine to help our fellow humans and relieve suffering. However, there are factors that impinge on humanism in the practice of medicine, including:

  • The time required to study and master vast quantities of highly technical information
  • The time constraints of a busy practice
  • The distancing effect of increasingly sophisticated technologies
  • Increasing bureaucracy and documentation
  • Burnout or disillusionment

The good news is medical training has been trending in a more humanistic direction over the past decade in our attempts to produce a more compassionate workforce. Change in medical schools’ selection criteria produces more caring physicians. For example, at Johns Hopkins, we don’t just look at MCAT scores, but also at the candidate’s interests and activities, where they’ve volunteered, and what their recommenders say about their character in their letters of support.

There have also been positive changes to both the medical school curriculum and the residency model. Under our revamped Genes to Society curriculum, students begin speaking with patients in the clinic in the first month of medical school and focus on the impact that social, community and environmental issues have on the health of individuals. We’ve also made great strides in our residency training. Work hours have been reined in for interns and residents, we incentivize the mentorship of our trainees, and we require them to participate in service projects to help them develop empathy and the ability to relate to people of different backgrounds.

Health care providers have also adopted policies to preserve the intimacy of the physician/patient relationship, including setting up exam rooms to keep the laptop for taking notes out of the way so the doctor can still face and make eye contact with the patient. We are also moving toward exclusively single-patient rooms in all of our hospitals, in part so that patients’ conversations with their doctors are more private.

Patients are people with feelings, opinions and goals. As physicians, it behooves us to get the patient involved in the healing process—to try to understand their goals and find the path that best meets their needs. Caring doctors are better doctors. They practice safer medicine, earn more trust from patients and get them more engaged in their health care, leading to better outcomes. To lead this change, we must find the proper balance between the time-intensive demands of a patient-centric approach to medicine with the need to provide care for a growing number of patients.

Caring doctors are better doctors. They practice safer medicine,
earn more trust from patients and get them more engaged in their health care, leading to better outcomes.