Sunday, October 6, 2013

Rachel Remen, The Healer's Art, and Healing Healers

Two recent columns in the New York Times by David Bornstein highlight the work of Rachel Remen, MD, a physician, healer, educator and writer whom I deeply admire and respect.

David Bornstein is a journalist who has chronicled the impact of social entrepreneurs (I love his book, How to Change the World).  David writes a blog for NYT called "Fixes". In his September 18, 2013 column, Medicine's Search for Meaning, he writes about burnout among physicians that results from the challenges of practicing medicine in the current environment, one that focuses on productivity and treatment outcomes, rather than on meeting the emotional and functional needs of patients. To paraphrase:
"....healing involves far more than knowledge and skill. The process by which a doctor helps a patient accept, recover from, adapt to, or endure a serious illness is full of nuance and mystery......Great doctors don’t just diagnose diseases, prescribe medications and treat patients; they bring the full spectrum of their human capabilities to the compassionate care of others....."
Bornstein also writes:
"As administrative and documentation burdens have exploded in the past three decades, doctors find themselves under pressures to work as quickly as possible. Many have found that what is sacrificed is the very thing that gives meaning to the whole undertaking: the patient-doctor relationship."
Bornstein quotes medical educators who note that these burdens produce high levels of distress, depression, loss of satisfaction, fatigue, and burnout, producing "medical errors, substance abuse, and doctors quitting" and asks,  "How could we help medicine overcome its own illness?"

Bornstein answers his own question by describing work of Rachel Remen, who, as I noted in my introduction, has been a source of inspiration and healing for me for many years. Rachel is a wonderful clinician, educator and writer who has dedicated her career to meeting the broad biopsychosocial and spiritual needs of her patients. Through her writings and trainings, she has also helped practicing clinicians, as well as clinicians in training, to recapture the core values...the "meaning" ... that often led them to choose medicine or nursing as a career.

The Healer’s Art course was developed by Rachel over 2 decades ago at the University of California, San Francisco medical school. As David writes, The Healer's Art:
"is predicated on the idea that medicine is an ancient lineage that draws its strength from its core values: compassion, service, reverence for life and harmlessness. When students  derive meaning and strength .....[from these values, they] can 'immunize' themselves against the assaults of the medical curriculum and even the health care system itself."
The Healer's Art has now spread to dozen's of medical and nursing schools in the US and to a growing list of professional schools around the globe.

A similar program for practicing clinicians,  Finding Meaning in Medicine (FMM), provides a supportive forum for exploring core values and sharing positive experiences related to working with patients. I was a member of a FMM group for a few years and found it highly enlightening, rewarding and satisfying. Though I left the group when I changed jobs, I am still longing for participating in a group years later.

There were so many poignant and heartfelt responses by clinicians to the Sept 18th column that David wrote a follow-up column, Who Will Heal the Doctors?. This produced even more responses, reflecting the need for more programs like The Healer's Art and FMM.
As I noted in my comment, my heart goes out to all my colleagues who continue to make daily sacrifices to care for their patients, providing every ounce of compassion they can in the few minutes they have with patients.
I have been planning to attend the Healer's Art training program at Commonweal for several years now so I might serve as a facilitator of the program at Brown University's medical school. Just yesterday, I made a commitment to apply to attend the 2014 course, with Rachel, at The Institute for the Study of Health & Illness (ISHI). I am already excited about attending and experiencing some healing myself.

See more on Rachel, The Healer's Art, FMM and ISHI at:

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Danielle Ofri's Reflections on Fear Triggered by Illness

Danielle Ofri's recent column on Slate, the online magazine, addresses the topic of fear that results from uncertainty and the risks associated with medical illnesses and procedures, even minor ones. Danielle shares the distress and acute fear she experienced as a mom when her young son required minor ear surgery. Even though, as a physician, she understood that the risk of the procedure was low, she nonetheless imagined the worst and became gripped with raw fear that  didn't abate till her son was fully recovered from his surgery.

Dr. Ofri's distress during that minor ordeal increased her awareness of the needs of her patients and their family for her  support, empathy and compassion during episodes of illness, especially when tough medical decisions need to be made. As Danielle points out, the process of shared decision making requires more than information sharing and collaboration. It also requires eliciting and responding to the emotions that are aroused by uncertainnty and risk. As she she beautifully writes, 
"When I sit with a patient now, deciding on a treatment, I still lay out the risks and benefits as systematically as I can. But then I take a moment to acknowledge the raw fear that cannot be assuaged by even the most convincing clinical data. This conversation can’t eliminate the necessary leap of faith. But at least there is some recognition of the stomach-plummeting sensation that occurs" when a decision has to be made.
Thank, Danielle for your enlightening column! I also highly recommend Dr. Ofri's well written memoirs, including her latest book, What Doctors Feel: How Emotions Affect the Practice of Medicine .