Take a person with a major trauma for example. We can give blood, reattach digits, stop blood loss, and save lives. Instead of dying, people with failed kidneys undergo dialysis or kidney transplant. Electrical shocks re-start arrested hearts while drugs or catheters open blocked arteries. Defective valves are replaced and arteries are bypassed so that hearts can continue to beat on. A whole armory of antibiotics are used to wipe out various infections. Modern Obstetrics has made maternal death rare, whereas it was commonplace just two centuries ago. Today, many people who most certainly would have died in the past without medical intervention, walk out of the hospital after aggressive treatment and go on to lead long and fulfilling lives.
Within the last few decades astonishing medical technologies are dramatically altering peoples lives. Technologies such as organ transplant, limb prostheses, cochlear implants, insulin pumps, pacemakers, and defibrillators have revolutionized different fields of medicine. My own son, who lost his hearing at age four, is a recipient of a cochlear implant that enables him to hear and participate in spoken language. Not only as a professional, but also as a mom, I am a big fan of what modern medicine can do.
Yet, with all these skilled practitioners and dazzling technologies, why are so many patients dissatisfied with the current health care system? What are we doing wrong?
I believe that our greater dissatisfaction with modern medicine stems from a deep ideological belief we hold as a society about where the power of healing resides. In many illnesses or injuries, a medical intervention or treatment may be necessary and even life saving. Because of this, we as a society believe that healing comes from somewhere external to ourselves. We think healing resides in a pill, a treatment or a procedure. This belief system neglects the healing potential that is inherent within us, and causes us to look for healing in all the wrong places.
As a physician, I have cared for thousands of people in the emergency setting. Emergency situations are particularly responsive to acute medical interventions, and it feels good to save a life. But, we must realize that providing interventions is very different from the task of healing. For example, if someone has a cut on their arm, I line up the skin edges and place sutures. I help to provide the conditions that allow the best healing to occur. The miracle of healing happens within the patient. The same is true if someone has a broken bone. I line up the bone fragments and apply a splint or cast. The patient is the one who creates new bone in place of a fracture over the ensuing weeks. Our bodies are continuously undertaking miracles of healing great and small. We know from experience that certain treatments help, but when a treatment helps us heal, it is still our body that is doing the healing. The treatment is often just a catalyst aiding or facilitating in some way.
Prior to becoming a patient I was barely aware of the power dynamic that exists in a doctor-patient relationship. The patient feels ill and is vulnerable. The doctor has knowledge, training and access to medicines and treatments. This dynamic is a set up for placing the power square in the hands of the doctor and, at the same time, disempowering the patient. As a patient, and as a mother of a patient, I came to appointments with hopes of receiving a way to feel better from the doctors. I experienced a sense of helplessness and had to work to overcome that helplessness. I made a conscious decision to be an active, empowered source of my own healing and of my son’s recovery.
Having experienced both the roles of doctor and of patient, I believe that the root cause of the doctor-patient power differential stems from the collective perception that the secret to our health and wellness lies outside of ourselves and in something the doctor must give to us. Too often, we neglect the extraordinary healing potential within. The thoughts we think, the choices we make, the environment we put ourselves in, and the food we eat all contribute enormously to our health and recovery from illness.
As a patient, I realized that I needed to take responsibility for my healing. Taking responsibility meant that I would set my sights on the destination of wellness. I had to find within myself the determination to reach the shore of recovery and remission from illness. I needed to learn to trust my own inherent power to heal. After trying countless medical and alternative treatments, I finally realized that I needed to stop frantically searching for a cure, and instead look within. This did not mean forgoing necessary treatments. On the contrary, I needed some of the treatments I received as I traveled down the road toward recovery. But, I had to accept that treatments were only treatments, they were not the source of my healing. The doctors and other health professionals I saw were only catalysts to help in my healing process. I had to accept that the work of healing was mine.
Today, I realize that the best medicine empowers an individual in their own health care. That is what patient empowerment is all about. We are all unique, and capable individuals and should be treated as such during medical encounters. A competent doctor knows how to order tests and do procedures, but a great doctor helps to inspire and empower a patient to reach their highest potential in health.