Robin Youngson asks why he can’t be a doctor and a healer?
“You shouldn’t use the term ‘healer’ – it has negative connotations.” The peer review of my article about the role of compassion in healthcare was blunt. Although my article was commissioned by the editors of a prestigious medical journal, following peer review it was rejected. I took it personally.
I chose a career in medicine because I cared. I wanted to offer my care, compassion and healing to those who were suffering. This most profound part of my identity and purpose has been denied and vilified in a medical culture that values detachment and objectivity more than human connection.
What comes to mind when we talk of healers? For most of my career, I imagined a mysterious alternative practitioner offering miracle cures, without scientific foundation. In short, a quack. Such was my indoctrination in biomedicine and a narrow definition of medical science that eliminates any effect of healing relationships.
How was the notion of healing so debased, so quickly dismissed as ‘non-scientific’?
I now see compassion and healing as two sides of the same coin. Compassion is defined as ‘the ability to understand suffering, and a motivation to address it‘. Healing is defined as ‘transcending suffering‘. So when we step into the role of compassionate caring, we become healers but we’re not allowed to use the word.
Healing is not equated with cure. Indeed the most profound healing may occur in the face of incurable disease, in the patient finding acceptance, peace and resolution. But science is now on the side of healing, with growing evidence that the quality of relationship between health professional and patient has a profound impact on clinical outcomes.
Patients mostly recover from illness, trauma and surgery because of their innate healing powers. When we care for the whole person, instead of fighting the disease, we support that natural healing process.
Its not only the profession of medicine that quashes our idea of being a healer. Jill Maben, a nurse academic in London, researched the fate of new nurse graduates working in the NHS. They graduated with high ideals of compassionate, whole person care but within two years their ideals were ‘compromised and crushed’.
This disconnection between professional ideals and the prevalent culture of medicine is a significant cause of burnout. In our travels around the world, we have seen health professional weep at the tragedy of their caring identity denied, and also weep for joy in remembering rare instances of extraordinary healing connection. What’s the cost of this disconnection? Horrifying rates of burnout among health professionals, who suffer emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation and a complete loss of job satisfaction.
What’s at stake? The difference between a healing approach and a disease-centred approach is stark.
Consider the 80% of patients who present to their family doctor with anxiety, depression, obesity, hypertension, diabetes, reflux, addictions, and chronic pain. When we dutifully practice ‘evidence-based medicine’ we write a drug prescription for almost every patient. We are treating the symptoms, not the cause. The work is joyless and the demand is relentless.
As a healer, we treat the person, not the disease. We tackle the dis-ease that sits behind so many chronic health issues and poor lifestyle choices. How many people have a well-developed sense of self-worth in our modern society? Very few. Instead, we are collectively burdened with emotional trauma, adverse events in childhood, and societal values at odds with our fundamental human nature. These are the things that healers can help their clients to address: then so many chronic health problems melt away and people are empowered to make healthy choices.
This work is incredibly gratifying, fulfilling and joyful. Instead of relentless demand, overwhelm and stress, we find abundance. Our patients are not a burden of demand, they are the source of healing.
The distance between the everyday experience of most health workers and the joyous possibility of what could be is a tragedy, most especially for idealistic young health professionals who become disillusioned and cynical.
I did not realise how much the pain of denial hurt me until I found a healing practice outside of my hospital medical role. Healing work is joyous. While I bring a deep healing intention and compassionate presence to my clients, I perceive that the healing is something that arises in the client, not something I do to the client. I let go of attachment to outcomes, while witnessing miraculous changes in the lives of the people I serve. A day of healing work leaves me filled with love, awe and joy – not stressed and exhausted.
Yes, I find opportunities for healing in my hospital practice and I know that my presence sometimes make a huge difference to patients. I also know that when I bring a healing intention to my clinical tasks, I make better judgments and apply my technical knowledge and skills more effectively.
But much of my clinical work is soulless and I worry that it may be doing more harm than good. Around 80% of the conditions we treat in hospital are preventable. What if we brought healing to the lives of patients instead of expensive and sometimes harmful medical treatment?
So I think it’s time we reclaimed our deepest identity. I want to be a doctor AND and healer. I want the word healer to represent the best in us, not to be dismissed as quackery.
As a nurse, a therapist, a midwife, a dentist, a social worker – are you ready to reclaim your deepest identity and purpose? Will you stand with me? How much longer will we tolerate a healthcare system that steals our deepest identity, our purpose and our joy?
Times are changing. When I began campaigning fifteen years ago for humane and compassionate healthcare, the word ‘compassion’ was absent in the entire medical literature. It took courage to stand on the stage and defy medical norms and to talk about compassion and caring. Now its OK to talk about being a compassionate doctor.
Even my own profession of anesthesiology and intensive care – the pinnacle of technical medicine – is now openly talking about the importance of compassion, not only for patients but for our trainees.
Now is the time for us to be courageous in claiming our identity as healers. If we stand together, we can no longer be denied.