Channeling the Dunkirk Spirit: How physicians support patients overcoming adversity

A common thread you hear from patients is the need for support through the adversity and help in making the decisions on treatments. Doctors are an integral part providing a distillation of the information and helping translate the complex world of medicine into an understandable resource that leads to informed decision making.
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One in eight U.S. women will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime.  In 2014 alone, an estimated 295,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed.  That’s approximately 808 cases per day.

But these statistics don’t matter.  Whether it’s one-in-eight or one-in-3 million, the impact of the illness is what matters—not the numbers.  It immediately becomes a reality to you.  We can never forget that healthcare is personal, something my colleague, Melissa Dirth, articulated beautifully in her recent post, “When “1 in 8” was no longer just a statistic to me.”

As a physician, sharing unfavorable findings and test results is always a sobering moment, no matter how many times you’ve done it before.  We all struggle to find the right words, and look for ways to be supportive as you allow your patient to handle the shock that accompanies such news.  We all have different viewpoints and our perspective on the disease is colored by our own life experiences and the individual circumstances.

What never ceases to amaze me, however, is the strength of the human spirit.  Despite the hard road stretching before them, so many of our patients face breast cancer with what the British would term “Dunkirk Spirit,” that inner strength that helps patients and their families overcome tremendous adversity.  It is, in my opinion, one of the reasons that make cancer sufferers and survivors such an important and compelling tableau of courage.

Unfortunately, one of the essential elements that quickly becomes lost in the morass of technology is the Art of Medicine, and our ability as doctors to spend the time focused on our patient and their relatives.  As clinicians, we intuitively know the statistics associated with the disease and can interpret them to understand the impact the diagnosis we have just communicated with the patient is likely to have, but there is so much more to providing care.  We don’t just treat the condition, the physical body—we are caregivers and healers, and we seek to help the whole patient.

Technology can help in healthcare, but it is not the goal nor should it ever be the focus.  Yet, in some cases, it has detracted from our ability to provide care and compassion.  To deliver on the promise of great healthcare we have to return to the Art of Medicine and enable, not disable, our clinicians with the technology we develop.

To learn more about the role technology plays in the Art of Medicine, read: “There’s no room for technology in end-of-life care decisions.”

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Dr. Nick van Terheyden

About Dr. Nick van Terheyden

This is a contributed post by Dr. Nick van Terheyden. As a pioneering creator in the evolution of healthcare technology, he brings a distinctive blend of medical practitioner and business strategist to the realm of health IT. To see more content like this, visit the Healthcare section of the blog.