Ph.D. Octopus

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Humanisms in Medicine

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by Weiner

I had the honour of attending my wife’s white coat ceremony on Friday at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons (P & S). She begins her first semester of medical school with on Monday.

The ceremony was nice and rather interesting. I learned some fun historical tidbits, like the fact that Jimmy Carter was the first U.S. president born in a hospital. I admired the nobility in which the medical profession was cast. Sure, it was a bit hokey and high-minded. But it was also touching.

I used to think that the only reason anyone ever became a physician was for the money. Medicine offered a steady, well-paying career. After spending time in hospitals for various reasons, I’ve come to appreciate the honour and nobility of the practice of medicine. Of course, like people, some doctors are wonderful and others are terrible. But the ideal is a good one. And the white coat ceremony really hammered that home. The speakers emphasized the fact that licensed doctors are offered immense power and privileges, to ask questions that nobody in any other situation could ask, to touch and examine the body in ways that would get you arrested in another context. And like Uncle Ben said to Peter Parker, “with great power comes great responsibility.”

The elephant in the room only really emerged once. In his closing remarks, Dr. Robert Kelly, the Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of New York-Presbyterian Hospital mentioned the recent changes to the American health care system, saying that (I’m closely paraphrasing), depending on your perspective, the system is hanging on a precipice, or at the dawn of a great new era. His non-partisan political correctness belied the lofty ideals that he and the other speakers attributed to physicians. From where I stand, it’s painfully obvious that Obama’s health care reform was only a small step in the right direction, that in addition to universal coverage America needs a sea change in its attitude towards health care.

In the United States, too many people think of medical treatment as a service, patients as customers or consumers, doctors as providers or even businessmen. I firmly believe this is wrong. Doctors, like teachers and so many other workers should be regarded as public servants. The cause of healing, of alleviating suffering, is an honourable one, despite all the money and insurance agencies and lawsuits and everything else that has corrupted it. Whatever system that delivers it,though, I’m proud to have my wife entering the field.

I’m also proud that she’s attending Columbia. I appreciated P & S’s commitment to the notion that, according to the ceremony’s program, “medical education is university education.” The school stresses the academic side of medicine:

The acquisition of knowledge and skills is important in professional education, but far more vital is a profound understanding of the science, the art and the ethic within which both knowledge and skill are applied.

Their motto is “Humanism in Medicine” though I think the meaning of the term humanism shifted over the course of the ceremony. This, however, was not necessarily a bad thing.

On the one hand, they seemed to contrast humanism with science, arguing that even in the not-so-distant past, when much of medicine was mysticism and quackery, doctors were models of “humanism,” of compassion and caring and genuine attempts to heal, however misguided their “expertise.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, humanism can mean “sympathetic concern with human needs, interests, and welfare; humaneness,” and suggests “humanity” as another alternative.

I accept this definition, and think it highlights the need for even more progressive health care reforms.

The other definitions of humanism,  however, were given even more significance. The first one, “the pursuit of human or earthly interests to the exclusion of moral or religious considerations,” is the one I most associate with the term. Another definition I also appreciate was:

Any system of thought or ideology which places humans, or humanity as a whole, at its centre, esp. one which is predominantly concerned with human interests and welfare, and stresses the inherent value and potential of human life.

This seems to link the other two, namely that a “humanist” is concerned with human welfare, and also places humans or humanity at the centre, rather than a divine being.

This other one does something similar:

A variety of ethical theory and practice characterized by a stress on human rationality and capacity for free thought and moral action, and a rejection of theistic religion and the supernatural in favour of secular and naturalistic views of humanity and the universe.

Humanism is an ethical theory without God. It shows that reason and ethics, science and compassion, can be combined. Which is why I found the “invocation” at the beginning of the ceremony, and the “benediction” at the end, both delivered by Jewelnel Davis, Columbia University chaplain, a bit out of place. Both were mercifully short and innocuous, referencing God without mentioning Jesus or Allah or Moses or anyone or anything else. And yet the mention of God bothered me a little.

After all, here was a school celebrating “humanism,” an ideology committed to the “rejection of theistic religion.” Looking back at the first definition from the OED, I actually have a problem with it: “the pursuit of human or earthly interests to the exclusion of moral or religious considerations.” I don’t like the word “moral” thrown in there. Because I think “humanly or earthly” interest can be moral without being religious.

So much of what was great about the white coat ceremony was the connection to history, and more important, the advancement of science. Both Dr. Lisa Mellman, the Senior Associate Dean of Student Affairs, and Dr. Lee Goldman, the Dean of the Faculties of Health Sciences and Medicine, touted the improvements that have taken place over the past few decades. Medicine includes “science, art and ethic,” but these three things need not be placed in totally separate categories, and they need not be supplemented artificially with religion.


Written by David Weinfeld

August 29, 2010 at 00:51

One Response

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  1. […] equity firms). And not every career can be purely altruistic. Medicine is noble work, but even in my wife’s Columbia med school class, some fine physicians are going to make their money performing boob jobs (not that there’s […]

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