Doctors are helpers, not healers

It’s a seductive idea.  We doctors possess knowledge and experience which can not only help people, but can save their lives.  We get opportunities to be the right person at the right time to offer the right help that makes all of the difference.  It’s one of the greatest things about our profession.  It’s also one of its greatest traps.

I’ve heard many doctors refer to themselves as “healers,” as if we have some special power to bring about healing in our patients.  This idea confers some sort of a higher status and originates, to some, from a “higher calling” to a more noble life.  Again, this is a logical step, in that we have opportunities on a regular basis to help and even save the lives of people.  It’s natural to believe that somehow the healing power comes from our touch, or even from our knowledge.

It doesn’t.  I am not a healer.

Healing is what the patient does, not the doctor.  As a physician, I am certainly one who can help the patient find a faster road to healing, but I don’t heal.  I help.

Why am I taking the time to talk about this?  Why get stressed out over whether I am a helper or a healer?  I think that the belief in doctors as healers causes significant harm to both doctors and patients, and that getting a better perspective about the roles of each will greatly improve the care given.  Here’s why I believe this is a topic that needs addressing:

1. Doctors often fail at healing (and will always ultimately fail). There are many patient problems that do not get better, despite my best efforts.  There are countless pains I can’t remove, and many problems I do not solve.  Even when I succeed, the success is always temporary, as a new problem will eventually come back.  And if healing is our ultimate goal as physicians, we all are total failures, as all of our patients eventually die.   If healing is held as our goal, we fight a losing battle.  We are the soldiers in the Alamo, offering impotent resistance to an overwhelming force.

If I believe in myself as a healer, I will face constant disappointment and defeat.

2. When healing occurs, it is often independent of doctors. My patient may follow my advice and not get better, or may disregard what I say and recover from their problem.  My direction is imprecise and imperfect, based on my knowledge and experience along with what I believe to be happening with the patient.  But my experience and knowledge may not be right, and my interpretation of what is happening with the patient may be inaccurate.  Healing is something that happens in the patient’s body.  It’s when they get better, whether or not I am involved in the process.

Belief in myself as a healer is based on a falsely high opinion of my knowledge and abilities.

3. Patients who see doctors as healers will expect too much. I’ve seen it.  I’ve heard people’s frustration when I’ve told them I can’t fix their problem or remove their pain.  They feel like they  shouldn’t have to hurt, or that if there is something wrong it’s because I’ve missed something.  These are the folks who buy the “miracle” cures pandered by Dr. Oz and other profiteers.  They hear the promises of health and wellness from the media and are disappointed when we can’t offer the same.

By believing I am a healer, my patients will eventually be frustrated and disappointed.

4. Doctors who try to be healers do harm to their patients. The pressure to find the “magic bullet,” or the unifying diagnosis leads many doctors to practice bad medicine.  This is a pressure we all feel when faced with the powerless feeling some patients bring.  This leads to the ordering of unnecessary tests, performing of unnecessary procedures, and prescription of medications that should not be given.  I believe this is what drives many doctors to overly-prescribe narcotic pain medications and other addictive drugs.  We don’t want to stand helpless; we want to do something.

To protect my role as a healer, I am drawn away from my training and toward the task of finding a miracle.  In doing this I can cause significant harm.

5. To protect their status as healers, doctors will oppose any other perceived competition. Doctors in the past have been held with reverence by the general public.  We possessed that “secret knowledge” that others didn’t have access to, knowledge that fueled our healing power.  Now everyone has access not only to all of the knowledge we have, but also to others who offer alternatives.  This causes many doctors to aggressively discourage patients to research their own problems and to attack alternative providers.  In defending their turf, however, they are giving patients an ultimatum: us or them.  More and more patients are choosing “them” because of this and are rejecting what we offer.

By clinging to our power as healers, doctors have greatly harmed people’s trust in our profession.

So what’s the alternative?  Does it really make a difference what we call ourselves as long as we practice medicine?  I think it does.  Now that I’ve got time to choose the best way to practice, I’ve seen that there is a much better alternative to being a healer: being a helper.

Yeah, that sounds all dull and boring, I know, but it is not only more realistic, it is a much better way to practice medicine.  Here’s why:

1. By being a helper, I always can succeed. I may not be able to fix someone’s pain, but I can reduce it or can help them get through it.  Every visit is an opportunity to help someone, and once I have helped them I’ve done something that can’t be taken away.  I don’t have to see disease as a foe to be defeated, but as an opportunity to give to my patient from my experience and knowledge.  Even when patients ultimately succumb to death, I have many opportunities to help them do so with peace.

2. Being a helper keeps my priorities straight. I don’t have some crazy idea that I have special powers.  I don’t believe that I’ve been “called” or “chosen” to do magic.  I just help people.  My focus isn’t on me (as if my care was not a performance), but on the person I am helping.

3. Being a helper keeps expectations realistic. If my patients see me as a helper, not a healer, they will listen to my advice with different ears.  I am standing beside them, not above them.  They are far more likely to listen to me when I am offering help, not pronouncing my wisdom.

4. Helping means doing no harm. The temptation to offer more tests, more procedures, or dangerous drugs becomes much smaller when I take the role of helper over that of healer.  I don’t see a need to prove myself, and will consider the harm of actions much more closely.  I won’t over-prescribe pain medications because I will see how it harms my patients in the end.

5. Being a helper lets me exist in the information age. Like it or not, I am compared to the homeopaths, the herbalists, the chiropractors, and the doctors on TV.  When people embrace alternatives to the care I give, they are not necessarily rejecting me; they are seeking what they are when they come to me: to feel better and to lessen their fears about the future.  If the help I offer is held next to the miracles promised by others, I think I will win.  If patients are helped by others, though, then I should be glad for my patients, not upset about the success of my “rivals.”

We call what we do “health care,” which implies a relationship built for the sake of a person’s health.  I believe the best way to accomplish this is to have a realistic view of who we are and what we do.  I am not a healer.  When I try to be one, I always fail and am always disappointed.  I am a helper, and in taking that role I can always have opportunities to succeed.

Rob Lamberts is an internal medicine-pediatrics physician who blogs at Musings of a Distractible Mind.

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  • JR DNR

    Beautiful post. Thank you.

  • John C. Key MD

    I hate for this thoughtful post to degenerate into a semantics battle, but I think your definition of healing is too restrictive and your concept of helping too expansive.

    I don’t know any doctors who think they have a secret knowledge or magical ability to confer healing on anyone. As Ambrose Pare said, “I bandaged his wounds; God healed him.” Bringing healing to a patient is a holistic process and physicians should strive to be part of it. It involves at a minimum the science of medicine, the art of medicine, the skill of communication, the spiritual disciplines of empathy, sympathy, encouragement and hope. A physician who is loathe to provide all of these may not reach your definition of a healer, but he won’t be much of a helper, either.

    Helping may be noble, but healing is divine.

    • http://doctorlamberts.org Dr. Rob Lamberts

      This may be true, but many of the problems I list with accepting the “healer” role are extremely common in healthcare. This happens on the micro-level (like the doctor who is angered when his patients look things up online) and on the macro-level (over-hyping robotic surgery, PSA testing, other “miracles.” We are also very loathe to say “I don’t know,” “We need to wait and see what happens,” or “there is nothing more I can do.” The first list of consequences of healing are commonly seen, while the second list is something that eludes many physicians. I really believe we should step back in our role and not feel pressure from the hucksters, TV personalities, drug companies, or special interest groups to promise more than we can deliver.

  • SarahJ89

    Thank you for this.

  • drjoekosterich

    Excellent piece!

  • http://joannevalentinesimson.wordpress.com/ ValPas

    Excellent perspective on the true role of the physician. The body must ultimately heal itself.

  • querywoman

    Healing is a function of the body. All healing assistance works by stimulating the body to heal. All physicians have a 100% mortality rate for themselves and their patients.

  • querywoman

    To say “do no harm” is always problematic in medicine, especially in surgery. Every surgeon harms patients. Medicines also harm, but can have positive effects. Maybe that phrase should disappear from the medical lexicon.
    Stimulating healing is the purpose of the healing assistant.