Humanism in medicine: How much goes unnoticed?

The national Gold Humanism Honor Society (GHHS) strives to “recognize students, residents and faculty who are exemplars of compassionate patient care and who serve as role models, mentors, and leaders in medicine.” This society relies initially on a validated peer nomination tool to identify medical students who embody clinical competence, caring, and community service.

Upon discovering this emphasis on peer nomination, I began to question my own humanism, wondering which of my personal experiences had been witnessed by my peers. I began to self-doubt whether I was as “humanistic” of a care provider as I always aspired to be.

I wonder, what are we trying to achieve in medical education by honoring humanism in medicine? While medical education traditionally respects the larger actions that glean attention from those around us, perhaps there would be value in also creating a space that honors the simply elegant, often quieter ways in which some of us care for our patients.

I remember walking beside my patient, pulling her IV pole down the confined hallways of the oncology floor as we talked. I remember bringing red-hot fireball candies to my patient eager to go home, as a gentle incentive for him to be patient with us. I remember receiving a thank you card filled to the brim with handwritten gratitude and knowing that somehow, I had moved this man just as he had moved me.

These moments come to mind when I think about how I have embodied humanism. Many have been intimate exchanges between me and my patients, gestures which my patients have appreciated—a great honor in and of itself. They have also been outside the purview of my peers.

How much of humanism goes unnoticed, unwitnessed and unobserved?

I wonder whether expecting others to notice one’s humanism may place an unjust emphasis on having an audience witness the performance of humanistic acts, rather on the occurrence of the acts themselves. My challenge is this: How can we create a learning environment that legitimizes these more private expressions of humanism in medicine?

Trisha K. Paul is a medical student.

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