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YJBM Arts & Humanities: The Humanitarian Side of Medicine

February 05, 2023
by Kenneth D. Logan

I was asked to write narrative on the humanitarian side of medicine.

First of all, I feel honored to be asked to do so – yes, me, as a human – I have a feeling such as “honor”. I also, of course, have many other human feelings, and I also have many other ideas, expectations, and aspirations. I’m a human being.

The humanitarian side of medicine: If I am to speak to that, would I, in doing so, be agreeing that there even is a humanitarian side of medicine, that is, that that side of medicine exists? Would I, then, be acknowledging that there is also another side of medicine, a side different than the humanitarian side of medicine? What would the other side of medicine be?

I hope you’re a person who is still reading this narrative. That means that your mind is hopefully open to a perspective on this subject that might look deeper into the question about the existence of the humanitarian side of medicine.

Here’s where my mind is going on this subject: I find it somewhat unfortunate that there is even room for the option of there being a side of medicine that is NOT humanitarian. I suspect that the reader may already have a feeling of where I’m going with this…that there is no defendable reason, in my mind, that ANY subject relating to medicine should exist WITHOUT the absolute presence of humanism. Even the place given to computers in medicine is created by, given by, and for the benefit of, human beings. We, in medicine, therefore, have to never lose the human perspective – the human perspective in all its facets.

What is the history of this specific author’s “human” perspective? My life as a human being has included being a son of elderly parents, a father, a grandfather, a hospital corpsman in the Navy, a licensed vocational nurse, a family physician – these being actually only some of the pieces of the life of the human being that is me. Therefore, how could anyone know me, really know me, after simply a fairly brief interaction, such as after only a fairly brief interaction in a physician’s office, for instance?

Dealing with health issues in my life, in all its aspects, is, of course, unique to me. The “me” is different. The “me” is unique. Therefore, how could a physician adequately know how to assist me – assist me as an individual human being with a health issue – if they did not take the time to attempt to know me, take the time to attempt to get a feel for the unique-ness of me?

This is where the basic functions of being a human being come into play – that is, the basic functions of: listening, of caring about another human, of attempting to sense feelings that may be present, and possibly the depth of those feelings that may be present. As a physician, when sitting with another person, we have before us a human being made up of all the multitude of facets that make that individual who they are. Those facets are all of importance when it comes to approaching that person’s care. How can a physician adequately fulfill their contract, or responsibility, relative the patient’s care without doing their best to develop that overall picture relative to who that patient is? This “overall picture” being created by the artist, the artist who is the physician, the physician functioning within the realm of what some people call the “art of medicine”… in reality, it is a human being (the physician) interacting with another human being (the “patient”) – therefore, functioning within a humanitarian realm, which we call the actual practice of medicine – the practice of medicine.

Therefore, the humanitarian “side” of medicine is not a side at all, but rather is the whole of medicine in its entirety. We physicians need to remember that, and we need to function within that realm of whole-ness, that is, if our goal is to function at our best as physicians. We need to also teach this to our students, we need to teach this to our patients, and we need to teach this to ourselves in our own lives as human beings.

Medicine is humanism.

--Kenneth D. Logan, MD, Family Medicine, Medical Director - Shalom Free Clinic, Chico, CA

Submitted by Kate Woodford on February 06, 2023