The Necessarily Human Face of Medicine

More grim news in Monday’s Daily Telegraph for statin takers – this time a personal account by a London businessman who developed severe knee pain after being put on simvastatin by his GP. The galling part of his story, actually, was the seeming reluctance or inability of a number of doctors to take his knee pain seriously. And in the very same issue another columnist declared she would rather have her injured foot treated by the butcher at Tesco rather than go to her local A&E department! Now it is no unheard of for people like me in the so-called alternative medicine line to slag off the NHS and western medical practitioners in general, but on the whole my recent experience, while rather limited, is certainly more positive than you might expect if you are reading the Telegraph lately.

Last month, for instance, I accompanied my aged father on a trip to see the cardiologist at his local hospital. This doctor’s manner was everything you could wish for – he was quick to make an easy, human connection with my father, he was informative and communicative, and able to tell difficult truths without hiding behind his stethoscope. A pleasure to witness such a professional at work. He reminded me a little of the Macmillan nurse who supported my mother, and me and the rest of the family too, through her dying days in the same hospital ten years ago. I will always be profoundly grateful to this man for the seriousness, honesty, authenticity, compassion and practical wisdom he brought to us all during an intensely trying couple of weeks.

These people had what is, I should think, the most important quality for anyone in the medical line – humanity. In their book ‘Why Do People Get Ill?’ Darian Leader and David Cornfield at one point suggest that the assumption we have that doctors’ education be science-based should be questioned, and that they might be better off studying philosophy and literature rather than chemistry and physics. This may seem bizarre if you have not read the book, which discovers just how much of illness may be caused by emotional factors, so that, to treat ill people, you need to be able to treat them on an emotional level, a human level, as well as a biological one. Sick people are not machines that have gone wrong; they are people who are suffering.

The trouble is that people want to think of healthcare as a technical thing. Just measure someone’s cholesterol level, and ladle out the statins – a robot could do that (and maybe soon will.) But real healthcare must involve human interaction, and quite often it must involve quite deep human interaction. A real healthcare professional, whether mainstream, alternative or whatever, needs to be someone with humanity, someone who feels what it truly is to be a human being, and whose humanity can resonate with that of the other human being sitting opposite him in the consulting room.

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