In my forays into the history of medicine I came across these six little words by Hippocrates. They seem strangely modern, almost like something you might find on a Hallmark-card for today’s medical school graduates. I don’t know how old the translation is and I couldn’t understand the original text if I tried – but these simple words really touched me when I first read them.
In Family Medicine we don’t often cure our patients’ diseases. Many of the things we think of as medical cures are possibly only spontaneous recoveries from ear infections, pneumonias, strep infections, indigestion and acne.
Mostly we treat chronic conditions in hopes of mitigating their effects on our patients’ vital organs – eye, kidney and nerve damage in diabetes or strokes and heart attacks in patients with elevated blood pressure and cholesterol. Sometimes we only treat the symptoms – pain from degenerative arthritis or cough, congestion and shortness of breath from chronic lung disease.
The one thing physicians always can and should do is the thing we may be inclined to forget when the everyday frustrations of modern medicine make us watch the clock, the reimbursement schedule or any one of the distractions that get in the way of real doctoring:
Comfort and hope should be offered to every patient, every fellow human being, in every encounter. We must never lose sight of the power we have in changing our patients’ perceptions and expectations of their diseases.
In Hippocrates’ era, doctors believed that patients had a natural ability to overcome disease. Medical treatments were meant to support the natural healing processes. Hippocrates is said to have written:
“Natural forces within us are the true healers of disease”.
How ironic that twenty-five centuries later we are re-discovering and proving, through the modern science of neuroimmunology, that patients’ frame of mind and perception of their disease predict their treatment success and cure rate more than many of the technical details of their condition or its treatment.
When we comfort a patient, we may be doing more than consoling him or her. We may be stimulating the patient’s immune system to overcome disease and return the body to a healthful balance.
We used to call that the Placebo Effect.