Ross University Blog

VIEWPOINT: Teaching Medical Students to be Humanistic Physicians

May 18, 2015

This blog entry was written by Vijay Rajput, MD, FACP, SFHM, Professor and Chair of Medicine at Ross University School of Medicine. Dr. Rajput is also the Medical Director for the Office of Student and Professional Development at RUSM.

In medical schools throughout the world, we teach our students so much science, but there are some factors that we may not be teaching very well. The challenge for a doctor is to do more than just apply information from an evidence-based journal. The challenge is to be a humanistic physician who treats a patient not just as a disease, but as a human being. There is a major difference between treating patients and caring for patients.

Let me give you a startling, but true, example. It is the case of a surgery resident on a surgery rotation who changed the dressing on a leg wound without realizing that the patient was already dead.

A patient can tell within 30 seconds whether a physician cares about him or her. This is where the nonverbal communication is paramount. Obviously, you have to look at the person, and then listen carefully. If the resident in the example above had looked at the patient, and not just at the leg, and had asked, “how do you feel?” it would have been clear that he was not responsive, not breathing, not alive.

How Can Physicians Earn Patients' Trust?

The role of the physician in society has changed. There has been an erosion of trust. What will it take to earn the trust of patients again? Can we, in medical education, provide the training in compassionate communication, professionalism, and the art of observation? My way of looking at it is that a person needs some basic substrate of humanism that has been developed while growing up. But just nature is not enough and just nurture is not enough. I believe that we can incorporate into the four years of medical school the development of a humanistic approach in patient care and teaching.

I am a native of India, where I earned my medical degree. When I immigrated to the U.S., I quickly discovered that while my English skills were quite good, there were many idioms, fine nuances of communication and cultural references whose meaning I did not comprehend, and this presented a problem in understanding my patients. The good news is that it compelled me to pay very close attention to my interactions with them and to make sure that we understood each other correctly. I will never forget the encounter with my first patient in the U.S. When he told me he had passed out the night before I was shocked. In India this phrase means that the person has died. Clearly, this patient was alive, so I had to ask more questions to find out what was going on.

Seeing Your Patients as People Is Paramount

Over the years I have learned from my students, residents and mentors, what characteristics are integral to becoming a humanistic physician and teacher: listening and counseling with empathy, being humble but confident, and seeing a patient’s illness in the context of the patient’s life.

In other words, to be a humanistic physician, you have to open your mind and heart to the people around you.

Tags: Leadership

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