Doctors, Your Patients Are Human Beings

http://silenciorn.deviantart.com/art/Stethoscope-279190421I’ve seen a lot of doctors in the past three years – too many to count on my own two hands.  The number of doctors by whom I felt heard and truly cared for, though, is less than a handful.

Maybe my expectations are too high, but after running the gamut of doctors, I’ve come to believe that a doctor’s responsibility runs much deeper than simply diagnosing a physical complaint and running a treatment protocol. That’s because when we go to a doctor, we go not just as a bundle of body parts and malfunctioning cells sitting in an isolated exam room. We go as living human beings connected to families, communities, religious traditions, and a reality beyond the material.

All too often, doctors seem to miss this reality. Admittedly, we aren’t going to them to get our souls treated; doctors are tasked with treating our bodies. But then again, bodies are much more than anatomical parts and processes. Furthermore, western medicine is not the end-all-be-all authority on diagnosing what’s going on in our bodies. Reading physical symptoms, taking medical images, and running tests only reveal a partial truth. The truth of what the patient is experiencing, in my opinion, is just as weighty.

Melanie Thernstrom, in her book The Pain Chronicles, describes that in recent centuries, the question that doctors ask their patients has shifted from “What happened?” to “Where does it hurt?” It’s a subtle shift, but one that reveals a dramatic reorientation of perspective. No longer is the doctor asking the patient to tell their story about how they’ve ended up in the exam room, with all its starts, stops, hesitations, and implied meanings. Doctors now completely bypass patient understandings and instead hone in on the physical problem, minus patient narrative.

My own countless doctors’ visits attest to this fact. I would go into the exam room prepared to explain to the doctor when my ankle pain started, how I think it started, what I’ve tried to do for self-care, and my questions. Oftentimes, before I got a chance to get out more than a few sentences, the doctor would jump in. “Okay, take off your shoes and socks. Does this hurt? Can you rotate your ankle this way? Resist when I try to push your foot this way. Okay, now get up and try to stand on your toes. Hm…okay, take two ibuprofen three times a day for two weeks and it should be fine.” Before I could re-gather myself to ask questions, the doctor would be gone.

This description is only a slight exaggeration of my experiences. In short, the treatment of many doctors has left me feeling voiceless, like an inanimate object squeezed into a too-short time slot, cursorily poked at, and then ejected from the exam room right in time for the next inanimate object to arrive, and not a minute over.

My friend in her second year of medical school pointed out to me that a lot of the problem is the whole health care system in the United States. Unless they run their own practice, doctors don’t have a lot of say over how much time they are allotted to spend with each patient, and they are required to see a certain amount of patients a day in order to satisfy the group or hospital requirements. The system of which doctors are a part, willingly or not, simply doesn’t give them much wiggle room to take a more personal approach. I agree. I think the system needs to change.

Beyond the logistics of the system, however, lies a deeper issue of epistemology – that is, how knowledge is arrived at. Western medicine has evolved such that knowledge is believed to lie in concrete physical facts which can be measured, compared, quantified. Pain is rated on a scale of 1-10. (I’ve always disliked having to reduce my experience of pain to a number.) To be sure, numbers are helpful, and without such cut and dried measurements and processes, we might still be getting bled and leeched every time we saw the doctor.

The problem with numbers and cold measurements, though, is that human experience often gets cast to the wayside. How has the stroke affected Mrs. Farhad’s life? Does she see it as an act of God, something that she should resign herself to, or as a result of diet and lifestyle, something that she can gradually improve upon?

What patients themselves make of their ailments matters, not just for treatment, but also because how they interpret their experience through the matrix of their own cultural and metaphysical understandings of the world is a kind of truth. It is the truth of their everyday existence, of how they live their lives. Even if it is not the lens a medical professional uses to diagnose and treat maladies, this does not mean that it is irrelevant.

What am I asking for, then? I am asking that doctors listen to their patients. Not just listen to the number at which they rate their pain, but listen for what their pain means to them, how it has changed their lives, what it does to their sense of self. I am asking that doctors step down from their pedestals of lofty, scientific training and approach their patients in a collaborative eye-to-eye relationship. I am also asking them to take into account different kinds of knowledge – personal experiential knowledge and not just abstract textbook knowledge. Bottom line, I am asking that doctors treat their patients as human beings whose voices matter.

It’s Normal to Be Abnormal

A friend who also experiences chronic pain recently shared with me her discouragement when people tell her, “You’re too young to have these issues!” I know how she feels. Although I appreciate people’s care and concern, telling me that I’m too young to have health issues implies that what I am experiencing is abnormal. “Normal” young people shouldn’t have health issues. I disagree.  I think it’s time we all embrace our abnormality.

Having a “norm” or an “ideal” is not always a bad thing. The Bible obviously sets out values and role models – “ideals” that we ought to model our lives after. But are Biblical values really informing our ideas of what is a “normal body?” Or are these norms coming from elsewhere?

In actuality, the Western medical model is one key source from which we measure what is normal for our bodies. Western medicine identifies illnesses, disabilities, and pain as symptoms of dysfunction, thus categorizing these conditions as “abnormal.” Western medicine quantifies bodily symptoms against measurable standards. Your blood pressure, weight, flexibility, platelet count, etc. should all be within a certain range, otherwise there is something wrong. This logic seems natural, but if we take a step back outside of our Western-centric view, we see that there are other ways of thinking about the body.

Chinese medicine, for example, views the body as a constant interplay of Yin and Yang forces. One writer describes the balance which Chinese doctors seek as “a dynamic equilibrium that is appropriate and specifically possible in the particular circumstance and development phase of a person’s life. There is no standard or absolute – what is health for one person may be sickness in another. There is no notion of ‘normal’ Yin-Yang – only the unique challenges and possibilities of each human life.”[1] In other words, Chinese medicine takes a contextual approach to health; it does not measure individuals against an outside standard.

Deborah Beth Creamer, a theologian and disability scholar, provides yet another perspective with her “limits model” for understanding bodies, disability, and health.[2]  Creamer’s model arose out of reflection about what disability can tell us about the human condition and about God. If we take a Western medical approach and label disability as a simply a deviation from “normal” bodily functions, then we are effectively closing off any opportunity to learn from the experience of disability.

But disability can teach us a lot about ourselves and about God. As Creamer explains, disability reveals the limitedness and dependency of all human beings, physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. In her model, she asserts that limits are 1) unsurprising characteristics of humanity, 2) an intrinsic aspect of the human experience, and 3) good, not evil.

Seen from the “limits” perspective, disability, illness, and pain are not “abnormal” but a normal part of life. The experiences themselves may not be good, but the fact that we have limits, that our bodies are sensitive and react to negative inputs, and that we cannot push our bodies to do everything we wish they could is definitely good. All of these things are part of being human.

Furthermore, suffering – physical and otherwise –  is totally within the Biblical norm – Jesus predicted it for his followers and the early Church was born out of it. This is not to say that we should go out and seek suffering, but, if it comes, we should not be surprised.

Likewise, when our bodies exhibit pain, illness, and limitation, we should not be surprised. Instead of thinking that the health issues we encounter are abnormal and lamenting them, perhaps we should take a moment to reflect on our shared human limitations, realize our dependency on God, and thank him for the ways he sustains our lives and bodies.


[1] Ted Kaptchuk, The Web That Has No Weaver (2000, Contemporary Books, p. 19).

[2] Debora Beth Creamer, Disability and Christian Theology (2010, New York: Oxford University Press).