Humanism in Healthcare

By Lee Allen

Cindy Wool Memorial Seminar Enters Second Decade

“Honoring 10 Years of Encouraging Compassionate Care” is the theme of this year’s Cindy Wool Memorial Seminar on Humanism in Healthcare in March.

Dr. Sandra Gold, one of the founders of the seminar, returns as a speaker. She admits that years ago “the term ‘humanism in medicine’ was not much mentioned nor commonly acknowledged as critical to optimal health outcomes – but the movement to support compassion, respect and empathy is now widespread, thanks to a number of efforts as well as a deep yearning of physicians, nurses and other healthcare professionals to truly care for their patients.”

The keynote speaker is Dr. Danielle Ofri, who will expound on her latest of five books, “What Patients Say, What Doctors Hear.” With both medical and doctorate degrees, Ofri is a practicing internist at Bellevue Hospital Center in New York City and clinical professor of medicine at New York University School of Medicine. She’s a prolific writer about medicine and the doctor-patient connection.

Ofri speaks with the authenticity of a physician engaged on the front lines of medical care and keeping a focus on individual patients. A regular contributor to The New York Times on the subject of doctor-patient connection, she will explore how refocusing the conversations between the two can lead to improved health outcomes.

The first decade of these annual seminars have dealt with humanism in medicine, which promotes empathic relationships between patients and those who tend to them. This is a legacy of Cindy Wool, who passed away at age 54 from acute lymphocytic leukemia.

Her husband, Steven Wool, himself a doctor of internal medicine, referenced her attitude in which she found a positive light in all aspects of tragedy. The memorial seminar has a similar mission to make a positive difference in the medical field.

“The goal of the seminar is to raise that level of care and healing in our community – not just technically, but humanistally,” he said.

“The Cindy Wool Seminar is unusual in that it is based in the community, representing a wonderful example of community-medical school partnerships,” according to Fran Katz, senior VP of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona and its Maimonides Society fellowship of medical professionals. 

“The seminar creates opportunities to increase the capacity of healthcare professionals for compassion and empathy and encourages lifelong learning to address the critical need for humanism through education, discussion and community engagement.”

The concept of humanistic medicine isn’t new. Treating not only the symptoms of the patients’ bodies, but their metaphysical souls requires a belief that suffering during illness stems from the isolation from other humans while in a weakened state – and that by re-establishing this connection, true healing can begin to take place. 

Practitioners admit this is hard to accomplish in today’s modern medical environment where the model is to treat one patient’s symptoms, then quickly move on to the next. 

“These are difficult times for medical professionals with stress reaching staggering levels among physicians and nurses –– to the point where half of U.S. physicians don’t recommend medicine as a career,” Dr. Richard Levin, president and CEO of the Arnold P. Gold Foundation, wrote in the Association of American Medical Colleges NEWS. “Long before my time, the tools doctors used to heal were field tradition and compassion. They sat at bedsides and listened. They came with a gentle touch and an empathetic ear.”

Today, constant demands from electronic medical records result in physicians spending an estimated one to two hours on EMR-related tasks for every hour with patients. The distancing between doctor and patient runs counter to the philosophy of humanism, the human connection between providers and patients that is believed essential to achieving and maintaining health.

“Economic pressures in healthcare severely limit the autonomy of today’s professionals,” Gold said. “They are directed to address time-consuming electronic health records and other computer demands like onerous insurance requirements – spending too little time with patients. It’s more urgent than ever that we place a high priority on the human connection in healthcare because humanism in medicine is not merely a pleasant nicety, it’s absolutely essential for optimal healthcare for patients as well as the well-being of those who practice medicine.” 

 “We’re all human,” said Wool, “and Empathy 101 is a good lesson to be learned. Every patient can’t be saved, but every doctor can become more empathic in how they interact with those patients and their families.”

Because this is the first-decade anniversary of the seminar series, the program will focus on the long-standing relationship of the seminar with the Arnold P. Gold Foundation – whose motto is “Keeping Healthcare Human” – and its National Solidarity Day for Compassionate Patient Care.  

Solidarity Day was established to recognize University of Arizona Medical Center trauma surgeon Dr. Randall Friese’s demonstration of compassionate care for then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords when she was admitted in 2011 with multiple gunshot wounds.  

“Do we know how our first decade of seminars has improved doctor-patient relationships or how it’s changed medical care?” asked Wool. “That’s hard to quantify, but each year the seminar continues to grow. We don’t have a true measure of our effectiveness, but we anecdotally acknowledge we’re making progress in focusing on the personal touches in medicine that can really make a              difference.”

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