It’s common to hear people say that as distressing as it may be to get a diagnosis of illness, no matter how severe, it’s a relief when doctors find something. Because then the patient does not feel crazy.
I think there are larger questions here, which require us to examine the very nature of the medical system: Why do we turn to external measures to validate a very real experience in our bodies? Why might doctors assume that we are nuts if they cannot see what we experience?
And why is the mind-body connection in particular, and mental illness in general, effectively demeaned and dismissed, if in fact a patient might be a bit on the “nutty” side? Why are there shame and blame attached to psychological problems that require psychotherapy but not, say, vision problems that require glasses?
Like all good little American patients, once upon a time I used to look to external measures to tell me about my body. If I felt something off in my body, which I live in every single day, 24/7, thank you very much, I would go to the doctor. If the doctor didn’t find anything, I would assume everything was OK and blow off whatever was going on.
Here’s what’s really happening when I go to the doctor and I don’t find something: I’m getting feedback that our human-built machines do not have the sophistication or capacity to detect the particular imbalance I am experiencing. Period.
Which is why holistic medicine is far more useful in most situations: Rather than looking at the body part that feels off, it looks at the entire lifestyle and evaluates how to optimize the healing – through diet, relationship, sleep habits, exercise, meditation, and so on.
I also question why doctors assume that if they cannot find something, we must be having psychological problems, and why that assertion (or behavior embodying that assertion) comes with so much emotional charge – ie, that we are bad, evil, vile people for possibly having psychological issues.
What if someone does have psychological issues? The moral imperative is to approach that individual with love and get that person treatment, just as one would hopefully do if someone needed crutches or braces or glasses or prosthetics or whatever.
Here is how I think doctors need to operate:
- Listen with an open mind to our condition.
Acknowledge there are as many different communication styles as there are people. Recognize that some people may be traumatized by previous doctor experiences and may therefore come off as being defensive, strange, or extremely anxious. Understand that one cannot possibly know the root of another person’s behavior, before it is revealed. Practice the spiritual discipline of compassion and humility – with the awareness that there is a marked power imbalance between a doctor and a patient.
- Reflect on and share information about the various possibilities
There are many different possible causes for a whole host of symptoms. Inform us about these possible causes, and share an educated guess about which cause it is – also revealing why you make that guess. Encourage us to write down this information and keep it as a reference document, as you go down the path exploring causes and treatments.
- Inform us about and recommend treatment options
There are numerous diagnostic tests available. Tell us which, if any, you recommend, and why. Be up front about all possible side effects of these tests.
- Inform us about other resources available.
Make sure you have a network of conventional, complementary, and alternative health practitioners, as well as a resource list of where we can find out more information about our possible condition and treatment options.
- Let us make the decision about our bodies.
If you are doing your job right, you are a teacher and consultant. You are not our boss, parent, Gd, or any other authority figure. Earn your respect instead of manipulating or coercing us into deference. Once you give us the information we need, let us make the decision of how to move forward; and be there to lovingly and intelligently support us on our path to wellness.