Friday, August 29, 2014
Doctors aren't 'healers'
It’s a seductive idea. We doctors possess knowledge and experience which can not only help people, but can save their lives. We get opportunities to be the right person at the right time to offer the right help that makes all of the difference. It’s one of the greatest things about our profession. It’s also one of its greatest traps.
I’ve heard many doctors refer to themselves as “healers,” as if we have some special power to bring about healing in our patients. This idea confers some sort of a higher status and originates, to some, from a “higher calling” to a more noble life. Again, this is a logical step, in that we have opportunities on a regular basis to help and even save the lives of people. It’s natural to believe that somehow the healing power comes from our touch, or even from our knowledge.
It doesn’t. I am not a healer.
Healing is what the patient does, not the doctor. As a physician, I am certainly one who can help the patient find a faster road to healing, but I don’t heal. I help.
Why am I taking the time to talk about this? Why get stressed out over whether I am a helper or a healer? I think that the belief in doctors as healers causes significant harm to both doctors and patients, and that getting a better perspective about the roles of each will greatly improve the care given. Here’s why I believe this is a topic that needs addressing:
1. Doctors often fail at healing (and will always ultimately fail)
There are many patient problems that do not get better, despite my best efforts. There are countless pains I can’t remove, and many problems I do not solve. Even when I succeed, the success is always temporary, as a new problem will eventually come back. And if healing is our ultimate goal as physicians, we all are total failures, as all of our patients eventually die. If healing is held as our goal, we fight a losing battle. We are the soldiers in the Alamo, offering impotent resistance to an overwhelming force.
If I believe in myself as a healer, I will face constant disappointment and defeat.
2. When healing occurs, it is often independent of doctors
My patient may follow my advice and not get better, or may disregard what I say and recover from their problem. My direction is imprecise and imperfect, based on my knowledge and experience along with what I believe to be happening with the patient. But my experience and knowledge may not be right, and my interpretation of what is happening with the patient may be inaccurate. Healing is something that happens in the patient’s body. It’s when they get better, whether or not I am involved in the process.
Belief in myself as a healer is based on a falsely high opinion of my knowledge and abilities.
3. Patients who see doctors as healers will expect too much
I’ve seen it. I’ve heard people’s frustration when I’ve told them I can’t fix their problem or remove their pain. They feel like they shouldn’t have to hurt, or that if there is something wrong it’s because I’ve missed something. These are the folks who buy the “miracle” cures pandered by Dr. Oz and other profiteers. They hear the promises of health and wellness from the media and are disappointed when we can’t offer the same.
By believing I am a healer, my patients will eventually be frustrated and disappointed.
4. Doctors who try to be healers do harm to their patients
The pressure to find the “magic bullet,” or the unifying diagnosis leads many doctors to practice bad medicine. This is a pressure we all feel when faced with the powerless feeling some patients bring. This leads to the ordering of unnecessary tests, performing of unnecessary procedures, and prescription of medications that should not be given. I believe this is what drives many doctors to overly-prescribe narcotic pain medications and other addictive drugs. We don’t want to stand helpless; we want to do something.
To protect my role as a healer, I am drawn away from my training and toward the task of finding a miracle. In doing this I can cause significant harm.
5. To protect their status as healers, doctors will oppose any other perceived competition
Doctors in the past have been held with reverence by the general public. We possessed that “secret knowledge” that others didn’t have access to, knowledge that fueled our healing power. Now everyone has access not only to all of the knowledge we have, but also to others who offer alternatives. This causes many doctors to aggressively discourage patients to research their own problems and to attack alternative providers. In defending their turf, however, they are giving patients an ultimatum: us or them. More and more patients are choosing “them” because of this and are rejecting what we offer.
By clinging to our power as healers, doctors have greatly harmed people’s trust in our profession.
So what’s the alternative? Does it really make a difference what we call ourselves as long as we practice medicine? I think it does. Now that I’ve got time to choose the best way to practice, I’ve seen that there is a much better alternative to being a healer: being a helper.
Yeah, that sounds all dull and boring, I know, but it is not only more realistic, it is a much better way to practice medicine. Here’s why:
1. By being a helper, i always can succeed
I may not be able to fix someone’s pain, but I can reduce it or can help them get through it. Every visit is an opportunity to help someone, and once I have helped them I’ve done something that can’t be taken away. I don’t have to see disease as a foe to be defeated, but as an opportunity to give to my patient from my experience and knowledge. Even when patients ultimately succumb to death, I have many opportunities to help them do so with peace.
2. Being a helper keeps my priorities straight
I don’t have some crazy idea that I have special powers. I don’t believe that I’ve been “called” or “chosen” to do magic. I just help people. My focus isn’t on me (as if my care was not a performance), but on the person I am helping.
3. Being a helper keeps expectations realistic
If my patients see me as a helper, not a healer, they will listen to my advice with different ears. I am standing beside them, not above them. They are far more likely to listen to me when I am offering help, not pronouncing my wisdom.
4. Helping means doing no harm
The temptation to offer more tests, more procedures, or dangerous drugs becomes much smaller when I take the role of helper over that of healer. I don’t see a need to prove myself, and will consider the harm of actions much more closely. I won’t over-prescribe pain medications because I will see how it harms my patients in the end.
5. Being a helper lets me exist in the information age
Like it or not, I am compared to the homeopaths, the herbalists, the chiropractors, and the doctors on TV. When people embrace alternatives to the care I give, they are not necessarily rejecting me; they are seeking what they are when they come to me: to feel better and to lessen their fears about the future. If the help I offer is held next to the miracles promised by others, I think I will win. If patients are helped by others, though, then I should be glad for my patients, not upset about the success of my “rivals.”
We call what we do “health care,” which implies a relationship built for the sake of a person’s health. I believe the best way to accomplish this is to have a realistic view of who we are and what we do. I am not a healer. When I try to be one, I always fail and am always disappointed. I am a helper, and in taking that role I can always have opportunities to succeed.
After taking a year-long hiatus from blogging, Rob Lamberts, MD, ACP Member, returned with "volume 2" of his personal musings about medicine, life, armadillos and Sasquatch at More Musings (of a Distractible Kind), where this post originally appeared.
Contact ACP Internist
Send comments to ACP Internist staff at email@example.com.
- We used to make stuff
- If doctors ran their practice like the airlines
- No taste for truth?
- Who should take statins and why are researchers de...
- When doctors break the law
- Will immigrants make you sick?
- The next wave
- 5 ways that health care IT must get better
- This is what we need more of
- Bad breath and oral health--what's new and what's ...
Members of the American College of Physicians contribute posts from their own sites to ACP Internistand ACP Hospitalist. Contributors include:
Albert Fuchs, MD, FACP, graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine, where he also did his internal medicine training. Certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine, Dr. Fuchs spent three years as a full-time faculty member at UCLA School of Medicine before opening his private practice in Beverly Hills in 2000.
And Thus, It Begins
Amanda Xi, ACP Medical Student Member, is a first-year medical student at the OUWB School of Medicine, charter class of 2015, in Rochester, Mich., from which she which chronicles her journey through medical training from day 1 of medical school.
Ira S. Nash, MD, FACP, is the senior vice president and executive director of the North Shore-LIJ Medical Group, and a professor of Cardiology and Population Health at Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine. He is Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Cardiovascular Diseases and was in the private practice of cardiology before joining the full-time faculty of Massachusetts General Hospital.
Zackary Berger, MD, ACP Member, is a primary care doctor and general internist in the Division of General Internal Medicine at Johns Hopkins. His research interests include doctor-patient communication, bioethics, and systematic reviews.
Controversies in Hospital
Run by three ACP Fellows, this blog ponders vexing issues in infection prevention and control, inside and outside the hospital. Daniel J Diekema, MD, FACP, practices infectious diseases, clinical microbiology, and hospital epidemiology in Iowa City, Iowa, splitting time between seeing patients with infectious diseases, diagnosing infections in the microbiology laboratory, and trying to prevent infections in the hospital. Michael B. Edmond, MD, FACP, is a hospital epidemiologist in Iowa City, IA, with a focus on understanding why infections occur in the hospital and ways to prevent these infections, and sees patients in the inpatient and outpatient settings. Eli N. Perencevich, MD, ACP Member, is an infectious disease physician and epidemiologist in Iowa City, Iowa, who studies methods to halt the spread of resistant bacteria in our hospitals (including novel ways to get everyone to wash their hands).
db's Medical Rants
Robert M. Centor, MD, FACP, contributes short essays contemplating medicine and the health care system.
Suneel Dhand, MD, ACP Member
Suneel Dhand, MD, ACP Member, is a practicing physician in Massachusetts. He has published numerous articles in clinical medicine, covering a wide range of specialty areas including; pulmonology, cardiology, endocrinology, hematology, and infectious disease. He has also authored chapters in the prestigious "5-Minute Clinical Consult" medical textbook. His other clinical interests include quality improvement, hospital safety, hospital utilization, and the use of technology in health care.
Juliet K. Mavromatis, MD, FACP, provides a conversation about health topics for patients and health professionals.
Dr. Mintz' Blog
Matthew Mintz, MD, FACP, has practiced internal medicine for more than a decade and is an Associate Professor of Medicine at an academic medical center on the East Coast. His time is split between teaching medical students and residents, and caring for patients.
Toni Brayer, MD, FACP, blogs about the rapid changes in science, medicine, health and healing in the 21st century.
Vineet Arora, MD, FACP, is Associate Program Director for the Internal Medicine Residency and Assistant Dean of Scholarship & Discovery at the Pritzker School of Medicine for the University of Chicago. Her education and research focus is on resident duty hours, patient handoffs, medical professionalism, and quality of hospital care. She is also an academic hospitalist.
John H. Schumann, MD, FACP, provides transparency on the workings of medical practice and the complexities of hospital care, illuminates the emotional and cognitive aspects of caregiving and decision-making from the perspective of an active primary care physician, and offers behind-the-scenes portraits of hospital sanctums and the people who inhabit them.
Ryan Madanick, MD, ACP Member, is a gastroenterologist at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, and the Program Director for the GI & Hepatology Fellowship Program. He specializes in diseases of the esophagus, with a strong interest in the diagnosis and treatment of patients who have difficult-to-manage esophageal problems such as refractory GERD, heartburn, and chest pain.
Mike Aref, MD, PhD, FACP, is an academic hospitalist with an interest in basic and clinical science and education, with interests in noninvasive monitoring and diagnostic testing using novel bedside imaging modalities, diagnostic reasoning, medical informatics, new medical education modalities, pre-code/code management, palliative care, patient-physician communication, quality improvement, and quantitative biomedical imaging.
William Hersh, MD, FACP, Professor and Chair, Department of Medical Informatics & Clinical Epidemiology, Oregon Health & Science University, posts his thoughts on various topics related to biomedical and health informatics.
David Katz, MD
David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACP, is an internationally renowned authority on nutrition, weight management, and the prevention of chronic disease, and an internationally recognized leader in integrative medicine and patient-centered care.
Richard Just, MD, ACP Member, has 36 years in clinical practice of hematology and medical oncology. His blog is a joint publication with Gregg Masters, MPH.
Kevin Pho, MD, ACP Member, offers one of the Web's definitive sites for influential health commentary.
Michael Kirsch, MD, FACP, addresses the joys and challenges of medical practice, including controversies in the doctor-patient relationship, medical ethics and measuring medical quality. When he's not writing, he's performing colonoscopies.
Elaine Schattner, MD, FACP, shares her ideas on education, ethics in medicine, health care news and culture. Her views on medicine are informed by her past experiences in caring for patients, as a researcher in cancer immunology, and as a patient who's had breast cancer.
Mired in MedEd
Alexander M. Djuricich, MD, FACP, is the Associate Dean for Continuing Medical Education (CME), and a Program Director in Medicine-Pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis, where he blogs about medical education.
Rob Lamberts, MD, ACP Member, a med-peds and general practice internist, returns with "volume 2" of his personal musings about medicine, life, armadillos and Sasquatch at More Musings (of a Distractible Kind).
David M. Sack, MD, FACP, practices general gastroenterology at a small community hospital in Connecticut. His blog is a series of musings on medicine, medical care, the health care system and medical ethics, in no particular order.
Reflections of a Grady
Kimberly Manning, MD, FACP, reflects on the personal side of being a doctor in a community hospital in Atlanta.
The Blog of Paul Sufka
Paul Sufka, MD, ACP Member, is a board certified rheumatologist in St. Paul, Minn. He was a chief resident in internal medicine with the University of Minnesota and then completed his fellowship training in rheumatology in June 2011 at the University of Minnesota Department of Rheumatology. His interests include the use of technology in medicine.
Technology in (Medical)
Neil Mehta, MBBS, MS, FACP, is interested in use of technology in education, social media and networking, practice management and evidence-based medicine tools, personal information and knowledge management.
Peter A. Lipson,
Peter A. Lipson, MD, ACP Member, is a practicing internist and teaching physician in Southeast Michigan. The blog, which has been around in various forms since 2007, offers musings on the intersection of science, medicine, and culture.
Why is American Health Care So Expensive?
Janice Boughton, MD, FACP, practiced internal medicine for 20 years before adopting a career in hospital and primary care medicine as a locum tenens physician. She lives in Idaho when not traveling.
World's Best Site
Daniel Ginsberg, MD, FACP, is an internal medicine physician who has avidly applied computers to medicine since 1986, when he first wrote medically oriented computer programs. He is in practice in Tacoma, Washington.
Other blogs of note:
American Journal of
Also known as the Green Journal, the American Journal of Medicine publishes original clinical articles of interest to physicians in internal medicine and its subspecialities, both in academia and community-based practice.
A collaborative medical blog started by Neil Shapiro, MD, ACP Member, associate program director at New York University Medical Center's internal medicine residency program. Faculty, residents and students contribute case studies, mystery quizzes, news, commentary and more.
Michael Benjamin, MD, ACP member, doesn't accept industry money so he can create an independent, clinician-reviewed space on the Internet for physicians to report and comment on the medical news of the day.
The Public Library of Science's open access materials include a blog.
One of the most popular anonymous blogs written by an emergency room physician.