Both the scientific and the social sides of medicine are needed

The word medicine, in today’s world, seems to indicate a hard science in search of cures for many kinds of human ailments, such as cancer.  However, I believe that the true definition of medicine is the practice of healing.  Medicine is both an art and a science because it involves both human and technological interaction.  The art of compassionate care and social interaction must be combined with the science of human physiology and curative methods.  When such a combination of art and science is able to create healing, or at least the improvement of a person’s physical and mental well-being, then it is effective medicine.

The compassion, care, and human emotion required in the artistic side of medicine all make medicine very social.  For example, there are the interactions between a caregiver and a patient in a conversation, as part of a sign of affection, or in kind words of comfort.  A team of doctors and nurses discussing patients’ cases is also an example of the social side of medicine.  This team has social values and acts on those values.  Such values would be the ideals and priorities shared by the members of that team and they form an important component of a patient’s course of treatment.

I think of the scientific and the social sides of medicine not as two separate and mutually exclusive aspects of medicine, but as two important tools that need to be combined for effective healing.

Having been a two-time leukemia survivor, as well as an intern with my own pediatric oncologist, I have gained a deep and personal appreciation for both aspects of medicine.  For example, when I followed my oncologist and mentor on rounds, it was interesting to hear how differently the patients were being discussed outside their rooms as compared to inside their rooms.  Patients on charts were simply a list of facts and medical information.  Their details were analyzed with a focus on optimal medical outcomes.  On the other hand, patients in their hospital rooms are live, sensitive beings, with emotions, opinions, and often with many forms of discomfort.

I am intrigued by how a doctor starts with a lifeless chart of facts, walks into the room of a real person, and, if he or she is a truly effective physician, turns the diagnostic and planning process into a positive and compassionate social interaction with the patient.  In this way, a doctor improves the emotional and physical wellbeing of that person.

When examining the relationship between the scientific and social aspects of medicine, it seems to me that each aspect is necessary for the other to be effective in caring for patients.  My oncologist was very skilled at combining the two.  His ability to effectively combine them is what made him a leader in pediatric cancer care and what also made his patients smile brightly whenever he walked into their rooms.  I know because that is what I experienced when he cared for me.

Unfortunately, many doctors have not fully mastered that combination the way my oncologist had.   I experienced this also during my many hospital stays and visits for my two leukemia treatments, which took place at three different hospitals.   It is quite uncomfortable to have to deal with a doctor who acts indifferently, is uncomfortable talking to people, incapable of looking them straight in the eyes, or is rude when you, as a patient, feel miserable.  Poor bedside manners definitely do not help you get through your demanding cancer treatment.

It is my personal mission to gain a better understanding of how doctors can better combine the scientific and social aspects of medicine in order to increase the amount and quality of physical and emotional healing.   Training doctors in combining the scientific and social sides of cancer care is going to be important if we want to increase cancer survival rates and improve the quality of life for cancer survivors.

Clarissa Schilstra is a student at Duke University who blogs at Riding the Cancer Coaster: Survival Guide for Teens.

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