Humanism: the heart of medicine beyond medical school

Humanism has always been at the heart of medicine. Spending time at the bedside with our patients and connecting with them helps us understand who they are and how best to serve them. Some of us may remember the Gold Humanism Honor Society, an organization that inducts members who best emulate humanistic patient care as deemed by their peers. During the induction ceremony, hundreds of medical students nationwide pledge to listen to their patients with their whole being for the remainder of their careers.

Fast forward and before you know it, you are an intern. So many situations during this intern year force us to optimize efficiency. Add to that the countless notes, orders and remainder of care coordination – we are bound to feel exhausted. That expectation that everyone has for us to maintain a bright, warm spirit becomes more challenging to maintain.

I remember the first time I sat with a patient and their family to discuss a new cancer diagnosis. The patient had metastatic pancreatic cancer with a guarded prognosis. Before

I went in the room, I felt the uneasiness radiating from my stomach. I could not cure the patient of his cancer, and even chemotherapy could not save his life. How would this man’s children react when I had to tell them that they have a limited time with their father?

Maintaining that open spirit that facilitates humanistic connection was going to be difficult, especially as the bearer of such dire news.

As I mentioned this challenging news, I noticed that family members were not looking at me with anger; rather, they were looking into their father’s eyes. Each family member gave their loved one a hug, embracing and cherishing the moments they could still laugh and cry together. As I watched these interactions, I realized that even though I was providing such tough news, I was also facilitating the creation of heartfelt humanistic interactions.

I watched as my patient’s children reminisced over their favorite memories of their father; I could relate to some of these memories. While being the bearer of such news, I realized that my heart was not only warm with the ability to connect with the experiences of my patients but also strong in the knowledge that despite my patient’s terminal illness, my patient could live his final moments in comfort knowing that he had at least one remaining chance to reconnect with his children.

With our increased patient volumes beyond medical school, it is easy for us to focus purely on constructing and executing plans of care. However, humanism may be the medicine we need to rejuvenate our hearts. 

By Dr. Moez Karim Aziz, resident physician in the Margaret M. and Albert B. Alkek Department of Medicine, Baylor College of Medicine

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