Physician Heal Thyself?

The following appeared in The Washington Post Online.

As both a physician and ordained minister, I am often called upon to heal. Whether hearts or bodies, minds or souls, healing is central to both professions. Surprisingly, I heard my President echo the same thought and it struck a chord. He cautioned health-care providers not to see medicine as mere business, a practice model which is rife with hazard. Instead, he romanticized for some and made poignant for us all the call of medicine. Armed with a mix of ego and duty, he championed all stakeholders — specifically physicians — to own the problem so that we may move forward to create solutions.

Physicians take an oath. We are taught to first do no harm. Yet, the American system of health-care delivery is fraught with unchecked abuses and unsustainable damage has been suffered. In society, we aspire to live by the edict of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” However, the culture of American medicine is too fragmented, driven by excess, ignorance and complacency. Regrettably, these attitudes have cost efficiency and indulged appetites for pricier, quantitative medical care while sacrificing value. Our system hence is in dire need of more group-accountability, individual responsibility and focus on health promotion, wellness and quality.

Collectively, we are smart enough to achieve these goals. But only if we stop demonizing the uninsured, scapegoating upfront costs as a reason to maintain the status quo and rolling over to special interest groups and fear mongers.

In Chicago in front of an audience of my peers, I heard the staggering numbers and statistics. I heard careful details concerning proposals for Medicare savings. I heard another promise not to meddle with what is right with health care and to put in place deficit-neutral reforms. There were anecdotes and lessons. He scolded those who used fear tactics for political gain. He warned against pseudo-science posing as appropriate treatment. He did not shy away from contentious buzz words which have become fodder and excuse for inaction: socialism, big government, rationing, bureaucracy, mandated coverage, taxes and trillion dollar deficits. He answered his critics, some with legitimate questions but I am certain he did not silence or satisfy them.

But I listened and heard something deeper.

What President Obama did was give meaning to why many of us choose to become physicians. Though I am saddled with medical school debt and myself uninsured, the merits of medicine are worth the endeavor to save it. Can I be hopeful and not labeled naïve? Can I offer an alternative and not be told I did not answer the question? Can I support a public option without being rebuked as un-American? The soul of medicine is at stake and it does not need a conservative or liberal approach. We cannot settle simply to claim bipartisanship, rather American ingenuity and courage offer prescriptions for healing.

Chris T. Pernell is a doctor and an ordained clergywoman in New Jersey. Two of her recent projects include a prison-based wellness program and a faith-based childhood obesity initiative. Parnell is part of the 2010 EMPH Class.

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