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I'm Not a Doctor

A second opinion on the challenges and opportunities facing today's physicians.
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By Andis Robeznieks

Blog: Pushing better medicine through compassionate care

As evidenced by library shelves stacked with medical journals, the science of medicine can be measured in countless ways, but Dr. Richard Levin, the new president and CEO of the Arnold P. Gold Foundation, believes the art of medicine—or at least its effects—can be measured as well.

I spoke with Levin recently during the Gold Humanism Honor Society's fifth biennial conference and 10th anniversary celebration, held in Rosemont, Ill. He told me about the foundation's roots and its work creating an institute for research on humanism in medicine that will be dedicated to studying the role of compassion, altruism and respect in healthcare.

The foundation was co-founded by Dr. Arnold Gold, a professor of clinical neurology and clinical pediatrics at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons, and his wife, Sandra, who served as president and CEO until August. Levin said Dr. Gold was motivated by seeing how "physicians, seduced by new technology, turned away from the tenets of the profession," such as Sir William Osler's words: "Listen to the patient. He is telling you the diagnosis."

"We got so caught up with the idea that technology could take us out of suffering," Levin said.

To instill professionalism, Dr. Gold initiated Columbia's white-coat ceremonies welcoming new medical students into the field of medicine. Levin said the ceremonies are now an annual ritual at 90% of U.S. medical schools—and he notes that the Golds were able to spread this practice without spending money to promote it.

"There was no endowment," he said. "They did it through sheer will and passion."

Now this will is being directed toward research.

"It's a danger, this fascination with measurement, but a significant number of studies talk about the benefits of a very caring environment," Levin said, adding that research has already shown how "humanistic practices" can improve the conditions of diabetics, make patients more compliant with treatment regimens and help reduce hospital readmissions.

The institute doesn't have a name yet, but it does have a director, Dr. Elizabeth Gaufberg, a Harvard Medical School associate professor of medicine and psychiatry and co-founder of the Cambridge Health Alliance medial humanities initiative.

As knowledge of genomic medicine advances, Levin says physicians will "know a patient's molecular history" and how genomic switches can be turned on and off "based on the chaos, pain and joy we live with on a daily basis." So, Levin said, humanistic medicine is more important than ever, and the idea that patients will be able to get all they need from a computer "is nonsense."

This feeling was echoed by Dr. Pedro "Joe" Greer Jr., who had addressed the conference earlier.

"Do you want a doctor who isn't empathetic or compassionate?" asked Greer, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. "No matter how smart you are, if you don't show professionalism, if you don't show humanism, you shouldn't graduate from medical school."

Follow Andis Robeznieks on Twitter: @MHARobeznieks.

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