Thursday, June 30, 2016

Healthcare, Humanism and the Humanities

I am returning from a prolonged trip in France visiting my son, daughter-in-law and nine month old granddaughter followed by a few days in Amsterdam. In many ways, the trip has been an emotional journey more than anything else as my wife and I were able to hug, and play with Hannah, our French-American grandchild.  

That trip was all about emotions, history, art, and family.  It was about different cultures and traversing lands with different languages.  In the glow of that trip, I can't help making some observations on health care.  I ask myself whether, in a humanistic endeavor such as health care, do we leave out, or under emphasize those aspects of life I focused on during my trip.   

In France, I lived with my son and found myself in the rhythm of French life. It is a life that reflects French culture and values which appears at first glance to be focused more on the everyday than the goal oriented life that I see in the United States.  There is a saying that people in the US live to work and people in Europe work to live and I wonder if there is a kernel of truth to that. Just to clarify, I am speaking of small town France and not the frenzied Paris life that is similar in major cities worldwide. One can find a closer parallel in small town America than one can probably find in Paris to my French trip.  There appears to be, in the tradition of Rousseau, great value given to the logic of a balanced life. As Rousseau said, "Happiness: a good bank account, a good cook and a good digestion."

Our life there took on a certain rhythm that did revolve around our meals.  This is especially meaningful to me as a gastroenterologist and expert in nutrition. Meals were savored over time with real focus on the food; stores closed midday so storekeepers could enjoy their own long lunches; walks were taken slowly after lunch. It took a while for me and my wife to get comfortable walking slowly.  In many ways, what we now call mindfulness seemed to be part of my son’s family, and my daughter-in-law’s extended French family daily living. Of course people work and are productive and have all the worries that people all over the world have.  The attitudes towards those needs appear to be different.  We would stop in the afternoon at a cafe to give our granddaughter a snack as we sipped wine and watched nature, people and the world around us. History was all around us as these buildings we sat in could have been built in the 1600s.or 1700s.  I returned feeling like I had done nothing but eat and found that I had lost weight.  (I discussed this after a previous trip to France in a blog entitled “How I Spent My Summer Vacation and the French Paradox”). 

On our stop in Amsterdam on our way back home, we went to the Van Gogh museum and I was struck by all the medical aspects of his work and his history.  The painting “Two Hands” that show working hands that are thick from manual labor but also seem to have some contractures that may be indicative of arthritis show the intermingling of life and work.  His “Head of a Skeleton with a Burning Cigarette” should be used in programs to stop smoking. 

What I am describing, in an academic sense may be seen to be part of cultural anthropology, art history, sociology, philosophy, and history. Throw in a dose of academic French, enology for all the wine we had and a bit of high level culinary art and it became apparent that our experience in France and Amsterdam can be intellectually understood from study of the humanities rather than just, for example, from geography. Just as one cannot interpret a trip such as ours as being only about geography, one cannot interpret a trip to the doctor to be only about biology. 

Life is all about balance and good medical care is all about life.  It is not only science.  Our health professionals should be well versed in disciplines that help them understand that balance.  That may mean more use of literature and more instruction in psychology, sociology and anthropology.  I don’t have an answer of a specific curriculum to recommend.  I only know that we must do all that we can to prevent our medical and nursing education from driving the humanity out of the talented people who choose those paths.


There is a concept that is reflected in a number of sources, most notably the Zohar, the Jewish book of mysticism, which states that evil occurs when there is an imbalance between love, wisdom, justice and glory.   In some ways, the science of medicine often reflects the justice and the glory.  The evidence based algorithms and those in medicine who believe that they have all the answers to the dilemmas of health care produce a certain regimentation which creates a framework for justice and the entrepreneurial and the academic aspects of health are often driven by those in search of the glory.  While individuals have tremendous love and wisdom, it may not be built into the system to the degree needed to prevent a system designed for good from having evil elements.  I remain optimistic that movements such as the Narrative in Medicine movement which stresses the importance of storytelling as part of medicine will take hold and be important in the education of health professionals.  In order to have that happen, we need to bring more humanities into the teaching of medicine and nursing.  After all, we want the health professionals who will be at one point or another caring for all of us to be holistic caring people who understand the impact the illness has on our life as well as an understanding of the illness itself.