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The Therapeutic Magic Of The Physician Patient Relationship

Stanley Feld M.D.,FACP,MACE

A positive physician/patient relationship has magical therapeutic powers.

I believe I can best describe it with an outstanding personal experience.

It is reminiscence of an event that occurred long before I was a physician. It gave me incite into the power of a physician/patient relationship and stimulated my desire to become a doctor.  

During 30 years in private practice as a clinical endocrinologist I always tried to treat my patients remembering the therapeutic magic of that experience. The experience had magnificent healing powers for me.

The episode occurred when I was a first grader in the Bronx Public School System. The year was 1946. In those days being left handed was thought to be a curse. My first grade teacher forced me to write with my right hand to avoid the destiny of the curse. I remember the difficulty I had writing with my right hand. I was forced to persist. I made many mistakes in reading and arithmetic.

I also had difficulty learning new material. Nothing would stick. My father continually told me I was a smart kid. He said to not to believe my teacher’s impression of me.

I was never a difficult child at home. I always seemed to be agitated in school. I remember my teacher considered me a troublemaker.  

Finally, my teacher called my mother in for a conference. The teacher forced me to listen to the conference. She told my mother she was positive I was a disturbed child and needed psychiatric attention.

I was behind in reading, writing and arithmetic and was not adjusting socially. She told my mother she should act immediately before I was permanently damaged. She said if this continued I could be expelled from school.

My mother was beside herself. She did not know what to do. I felt her anxiety but did not know what to say. I did not know what a psychiatrist was. I was told we could not afford a psychiatrist.

I thought the solution to my problem was to be allowed to write with my left hand. No one would listen to me. Everyone, including my parents believed that left-handed people were cursed.

My father’s boss suggested we go to Dr. Schultz, a family practice doctor in the West Bronx. I remember the look of Dr. Schultz’s street. It was tree lined with two rows of attached single-family houses with concrete steps.

We lived in a four-room apartment in a walkup apartment building on Bristol Street across the street from the Boston Post Road movie theater. Dr. Schultz’s house was a mansion to me.

At six years old I was impressed, but terrified. My mother was anxious and terrified.

Dr. Shultz’s office had a desk, a few chairs and a mirror behind the desk. He asked my mother what was wrong. She repeated the teacher’s report almost verbatim. He asked some detailed medical history and took notes. When he finished he turned to me and asked me what I thought was wrong.

This is the first time anyone had asked me to express my opinion. He saw I was nervous and frightened. He calmed me down and told me usually the patient can tell him what is wrong if the patient is given a chance to express himself.

I told him that the teacher made me write with my right hand because left handed people were cursed. He said he heard that was a common superstition but there was no proof it was true. He then asked me to write my name and my brother’s name on a piece of paper with both my right and left hand. I did and he said “son, there is nothing wrong with you.”

My mother looked in disbelief. He then picked up the paper and showed it to her. She still did not understand. He then put the piece of paper in front of the mirror. My right-handed entry was legible now and the left handed writing which was legible at first was now backward. I was mirror writing.

He told my mother my problems were the result of the strain put on me being forced to write right handed. After I was permitted to write left handed for awhile my ability to write, read and do arithmetic would straighten out. My behavior problems would also vanish. He suggested that my mother listen to my complaints in the future. He wrote a note to the teacher telling her to let me write with my left hand.

Then he got up from his chair, came over to me and gave me a big hug. He also told me to show everyone they were wrong about me. I felt like a million bucks. All the tension left my body. I felt I could achieve anything.

There is no question in my mind that this approach to medical care and the therapeutic effect of the positive physician patient relationship saved my academic life.

The pressures on physicians today to see more patients, to test for everything so you do not miss a diagnosis to avoid malpractice suits, the lack of reimbursement for cognitive therapy, the use of interchangeable “providers”, the constant threat of financial penalties for undocumented care, and the continuous assault on physicians’ judgment has decreased the ability of physicians to relate in a human way.

“There is considerable healing power in the physician-patient alliance. A patient who entrusts himself to a physician's care creates ethical obligations that are definite and weighty. Working together, the potential exists to pursue interventions that can significantly improve the patient's quality of life and health status.”

Medical care has and is continuing to become commoditized by non-physicians.  The government and the insurance industry feel they own the healthcare system.  They have determined that through information technology and the evaluation of big data that they can improve healthcare.  They are dehumanizing healthcare delivery and medical care.

These actions are the common denominator to patients’ complaints about the medical care system. Patients feel this dehumanization. An important therapeutic effect of the lost human relationship will result in higher healthcare costs.

Our healthcare system has to change. It must support the humanizing elements of the patient/physician relationship. It has to nurture mutual trust rather than distrust between patients and physicians. A healthcare system that supports distrust, physician and patient penalties and adversarial relationships does not permit the kind of care physicians are capable of giving and patients need.

If information technology and the accumulation of big data are going to work it has to be as a physicians extender so that the physicians can best utilize the therapeutic magic of the physician patient relationship.

 The opinions expressed in the blog “Repairing The Healthcare System” are, mine and mine alone

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  • Mary-Margaret Walker

    Thank you for this great post. I agree with you about the importance of the relationship between a physician and a patient. I still cherish my pediatrician from Fort Worth, Texas and the many wonderful doctors that I have known in my life. I shared this on my Facebook page because it also invokes, for me, the importance of the times and people in our lives who empower us to be ourselves.

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