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Does Medicine Need a New Language?

The insurance companies' complications, government involvement, and economic downturn have all added fuel to this fire of discontent. But I think the problem is even more pervasive than that. It stems from our interactions. With each other and with our patients.
09/15/2014 12:05pm ET | Updated December 6, 2017
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Physician burnout -- and burnout in general -- is at an all-time high. From this Wall Street Journal article by Dr. Sandeep Jauher to a recent TEDx talk by Dr. Romila Mushtaq, the angst is palpable.

Sadly, as noted in this piece in the New York Times by Pranay Sinha, the suicide rates of physicians and doctors-in-training increase every year.

The insurance companies' complications, government involvement, and economic downturn have all added fuel to this fire of discontent. But I think the problem is even more pervasive than that.

It stems from our interactions. With each other and with our patients.

In the northern Natal tribes of South Africa, members greet one another with "Sawa bona," which means "I see you." The response is "Sikhona," which means "I am here."

How is that different from our usual "How are you?" followed by "I'm fine"?

The difference is in the validation, the acknowledgment of each individual as truly having meaning and importance.

When we walk into an exam room, we may actually ask a patient how they're doing. But more likely, we'll ask about the specific problem they're having: "How's your back pain?" or "Did the medicine make your itchy rash better?"

The leap from "I see you" to "How's your back pain?" is huge.

It implies that the patient -- just like those in the memorable book we all read in training, The House of God -- is indeed nothing more than his or her symptoms: the "inflamed gall bladder" in Room 3 or the "chest pain" in Room 5, not Mrs. Smythe, the grandmother of four whose husband died last May.

It's not surprising that it's come to this. We witness families at restaurants interacting more with their smartphones than with each other. We interrupt conversations, mealtimes, and playtimes to check our inboxes for more data to fill our days.

What's the solution? Should we all start talking in the language of Natal? No. Well, not necessarily.

I do, however, believe that we need to take stock of ourselves and that on which we choose to focus.

We need to be more present every day for each other, for our colleagues, and for our patients.

We need to come together as healers and maintain the humanity in medicine.

Let's focus on, as Jill Bolte Taylor suggests, "the energy we bring into the room" every day.

It's not a quick fix. But it's a start.

I see you.

Starla Fitch, M.D., is an oculoplastic surgeon and senior partner in practice in Atlanta. She is also the creator of , an online community for doctors, other health professionals, and patients who want to restore humanity to health care.

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