Wholly Healthy: Sometimes the Healer Needs Healing

This column departs a little from the normal subject matter of “Wholly Healthy” in that it’s a plea not for healthy behavior, but for healthy physicians.

Over the years, medicine has become increasingly complex. Mind you, the “saving lives and easing suffering” part just keeps getting better. We can do more than ever. In the 24 years I’ve practiced, the scientific and clinical advances have been breathtaking. And yet, for a number of reasons, the practice of medicine and the life of the physician have become increasingly difficult.

There is, of course, the constant threat of malpractice litigation. It is very depressing for those who endure such lawsuits, no matter which side wins. In addition, physicians constantly struggle against insurers, both private and government-administered, to get their patients the care they need and to receive fair payment.

Administrative burdens and guidelines (and costs) have grown tremendously over the past couple of decades. Indeed, the independent physician is becoming a rarity, as many doctors have little choice but to practice as employees.

Computerized record systems (the ones your doctor looks at the entire time you’re in the office) are 1) very frustrating to practitioners and 2) frequently not used by them. Poorly designed computer systems take doctors away from the bedside and keep them at work long after the last patient leaves. In fact, research suggests that physicians in training are starting to spend more time at keyboards than they do with human beings.

The medical education process itself is long and arduous, requiring students in the prime of their life to give up more than a decade of their lives in order to complete training. The rigors of education and the frustrations of practice are also very hard on physicians and their families. Substance abuse and divorce are all too common.

But perhaps most troubling of all is the fact that in America today we lose the equivalent of one medical school class each year to suicide. Around 300 to 400 physicians kill themselves every year in the U.S., and various combinations of the factors listed above lead to their deaths.

Bottom line? Pray for your doctor. Speak to him or her in words of encouragement and kindness. Invite your physicians to your church and include them in your community. It seems to me this is a largely untapped mission field, “white for the harvest.”

Remember: Sometimes the healer needs the healing. And next time you seek medical care, try to give back some spiritual care. It will be more appreciated than you know.