I was teaching a class of 120 medical students. The topic was ‘narrative-based medicine’, but I used it as an opportunity to talk with them about the art of medicine: about listening and caring.
‘As a patient, what do you want from your doctor?’ I asked them. ‘Someone who can cure my illness,’ replied one of the students.
I told him (or was it her) that he was quite wrong about that. What you need if you are ill, I explained, is someone who will listen to you and guide you through your illness. OK, I agreed, some of our pills or operations may help nature effect a cure, but many diseases and illness are not curable, even by nature.
That provoked a lively discussion, with lots of them clearly outraged to hear a doctor tell them that being a doctor was not about curing disease (‘Oh dear’ I thought).
Then a young lady put her hand up. ‘He is right’ she said, pointing to me, ‘Organs in the body may get diseases, but illness is about a person being broken, and being in need of help to heal.’ She went on to talk briefly about her own experience of illness, and the lack of help she got from doctors. It was moving, and the others listened to her in respectful silence.
I thanked her. We talked a bit more as a group, but the mood was quite different now, it was about how to do both things – to diagnose problems with organs or systems in the body, and offer the right things to help nature cure that (if possible), whilst also being able to help sick people heal. That is what good medicine should be about we concluded.