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Medical Humanism: Caring

By Robert E. Kravetz, MD, FACP, MACG, Retired Gastroenterologist

Digital - October 2022
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Republished with permission from Kravetz, Robert. Medical Humanism: Aphorisms from the Bedside Teachings and Writings of Howard M. Spiro, MD. Phoenix: Buse Printing, 2008. 

An essential of humanistic medicine, along with "do no harm" and "comfort always," is caring. Physicians can care for a patient or be caring about the patient. Care denotes diagnosing, testing, treating and hopefully curing; caring carries a feeling of concern, interest, wishing to care-for and understanding. As our ability to cure has increased, the capacity for caring has lessened; sometimes simply caring-for is all that can be done and it may be more important. The distinction between the two provides the difference between the scientist-physician and the healer-physician.


Patients often say that nurses are much more caring and concerned about them as sick people rather then as just someone with a disease. Perhaps this is because doctors, making hospital rounds or even in an office, spend so little time with their patients. Nurses tend to them several times daily; addressing their personal needs and concerns as well as their medical issues. A soothing and restorative environment, located perhaps in a garden or quiet area, can complement the benefits that nurses provide and prove to be a sanctuary for both patients and their caregivers.


Sometimes it is not the amount of time spent with patients, but the quality of the time that can be enriched by attentiveness and a relaxed attitude. The intimacy of the physician-patient relationship must be balanced with professional distancing. Personal involvement and a true concern for our patients' welfare will enhance this relationship.


Spiro's aphorism: "When you are sick, you want more than treatment, you want healing," states the central theme in the issue of caring. Ill patients feel as if they are in a foreign country suffering from culture shock or on a strange planet. Empathy, which reminds the physician of the patient's humanity, goes a long way to make us one with the patient and aware of their feelings. "Physicians do possess a little bit of magic" when they deal with patients like the shaman and medicine men of bygone days. To exercise that magic by words and deeds will help with heeling.

Learn More About the Author:

Robert E. Kravetz, MD, FACP, MACG, received his medical degree from New York University School of Medicine and trained as a Fellow in Gastroenterology at Yale with Dr. Howard Spiro from 1963-1965. He was in private practice until 1999 when he retired to pursue, on a more full time basis, his interest in 19th century American medicine. Recognized and honored in this area, Dr. Kravetz has published several books on the subject, numerous articles, been curator of several museum exhibits and appeared on both television and radio. His greatest passion has been teaching Humanism in Medicine to medical students and residents for the past 50 years and he actively continues in this endeavor. Dr. Kravetz resides in Phoenix, AZ, with his wife Nancy, three sons, their wives and grandchildren. He is quoted as viewing "life as an adventure and every day an opportunity for growth and new experiences."

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