Just as recent psychotherapies emphasize the healing power of the mind, a new approach to the practice of medicine draws on the inner resilience of each person to participate in recovery. The excellent documentary, The New Medicine, describes this emerging practice as rooted in a rejection of the artificial split between mind and body.
As the leading physicians featured in the film emphasize, states of mind and feeling do influence the course of illness. They are trying to change medical training to re-orient physicians to the human needs of patients and the importance of their active participation in healing.
This is a far cry from traditional medical training. As one physician says in the film, students learn a “hidden curriculum” during their years in medical school. It consists of the attitudes and values that restrict the attention of doctors to physical symptoms and the technology for treating them. Learning from what the faculty and residents do rather than say, they come to regard any response to a patient’s feelings or overall well-being as medically irrelevant.
One of the premises of the new medicine is that health and well-being depend on a balancing of all the dimensions of life: biology, feelings, values, spirituality, relationships, psychology. As one of the physicians in the film says, “If you disturb any one of these, you disturb all the others.” To respond to these multiple needs, more and more doctors are incorporating complementary methods, such as hypnosis, meditation, yoga and acupuncture.
Change in the training of medical students to make them sensitive to the human needs of each patient is one of the central themes of the documentary. At several schools, residents practice interviews with actor-patients to develop a compassionate style of relating to the people in their care.
One person, recovering from cancer, describes her interaction with a surgeon as a cold, belittling experience. When she talked with a doctor friend, he told her she didn’t have to settle for that sort of treatment. “You need a doctor,” she quotes him as saying, “who makes you feel empowered and smart, not passive and dumb.” When she found a caring physician who explained her options clearly, encouraged her questions and related to her with respect as well as compassion, she says she “felt returned to the land of human beings.”
A physician who offers alternative and holistic treatments at a clinic for the homeless frankly says in the film that she isn’t sure if these treatments make a difference in terms of medical parameters. But she is sure that the methods improve the quality of each patient’s life.
Another physician points out that patients come to a doctor’s office for one thing: hope. And hope, he says, is not like optimism, which looks for the best possibility in every situation. “Hope is clear-eyed.” It sees the possibility of failure but also the potential for a better future.
Unfortunately, many psychiatrists seem to be moving back to the traditional model of treating only the biological basis of illness. As Rachel Naomi Remen says near the end of this film, “Healing is about the will to live.” Medications and high-tech procedures can do only so much. Hopefully, doctors are learning to have as much faith in their patients as they do in modern technology.