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HEALTH CARE/ To cure sometimes, to relieve often, to comfort always

What is being a doctor all about? Elvira Parravicini discusses how to care for a patient and look at a patient as a person, the subject of this year’s MedConference.

Hospital, Codice Squarcialupi, XV century Hospital, Codice Squarcialupi, XV century

Curing and healing: is it just about medical and nursing technique or is there something else at stake? This question was at the center of the third edition of the MedConference, which took place in the New York area on October 21-23, 2011.

The MedConference was born in 2009 out of the desire of a group of medical professionals, including myself, to practice a medical care focused on the patient-as-a-person. Aware of an increasing dissatisfaction in the medical field, due to a reduction of the caregiver-patient relationship to a sort of mechanism, we wanted to propose a medical care that is adequate for the person with all their needs.

I believe that this is a cultural problem that starts at the level of teaching in medical school. My personal experience, in almost 15 years of practice in the US, has been that medical schools in the US are extremely good in terms of scientific and technical preparation, but the consideration of the human needs of the patients is very often forgotten. A human approach to caring for a patient is not something that can be taught in lessons at school, rather, is a cultural approach that is communicated person to person at the bedside.

As part of my professional duties, as Assistant Professor at Columbia University, I have been meeting many pre-med college students and medical students. One thing that I observe very often is that, in response to the question “Why would you like to become a doctor?” they invariably motivate their desire to become medical professionals because of their interest in helping others. However, they lament very often, almost constantly, the coldness and the cynicism of many physicians while teaching at the bedside.

Therefore, I have been proposing to them, as I teach them in the neonatal intensive care unit, where I work, at Columbia University, to look for what is beautiful and true in their patients. As this approach greatly corresponds to them, several of these students have been in touch with me even when they move to other cities, during their medical school and then residency or fellowship.

At the same time, I had been discussing, around a coffee or a dinner table, with some friend physicians and nurses about this issue. The outcome of these meetings was very often the communication of beautiful experiences that some of us witnessed. If we look at our patient as a person, we could clearly identify moments of beauty, even within the drama of the situation.

However, some of the students lived far away and, because of work schedules, it was difficult to find a time to meet all together. Therefore we came out with the idea to organize an event over a weekend where we could have a discussion about different problems and challenges, but also the communication of experiences of newness and beauty in medicine.