This, as more and more studies suggest, can lead -- hand in hand with the tyranny of algorithms and other
"quality/efficiency/cost-containers" -- to more tests, more errors and medical mistakes, lower quality care, and higher costs to all.
: Learn empathy. Put yourself in the other person's shoes, feelingly. When you find someone who shows empathy, follow, watch, and learn.
: Speak up. If you see a wrong in the medical system, speak out and up. It is not only important to call attention the wrongs in the system, it
is essential for your survival as a human being.
: Learn your trade, in the world. Your patient is never only the patient, but the family, friends, community, history, the climate, where the water comes
from and where the garbage goes. Your patient is the world.
Some have said that The House of God is cynical. And yet in rereading, it has a constant message that I was dimly conscious of in writing: being with the
patient. In the words of the hero of the novel, the Fat Man, "I make them feel that they're still part of life, part of some grand nutty scheme, instead of alone
with their diseases. With me, they still feel part of the human race." And as the narrator Roy Basch realized, "What these patients wanted was what anyone wanted: the hand in their hand, the sense that their doctor could care."
And so in 1974 I came away from The House of God aware of at least one thing: The essence of medical care, and life, is connection.
Fast forward 30 years.
I have published two more novels -- Fine and Mount Misery. Also, with my wife, co-wrote the play Bill W and Dr. Bob about the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous, and a nonfiction book We Have to Talk: Healing Dialogues Between Women and Men.
During this time, as they say, life happened. There were many life struggles, and walks through the suffering. Luckily, at the right times, I was
accompanied by others.
From Mount Misery, and also from conducting gender dialogues all over the world while writing We Have to Talk, I learned the importance of shifting focus from a center on "I" or "You", to "We." As in, for physicians, "We've got all the information; let's talk about what we can." The patient will say, "I think maybe we should .. " Suddenly there is a concreteness in your approach to treatment, that you are in this together.
From Bill W. and Dr. Bob, I learned that, in Bill's words: "The only thing that can keep a drunk sober is telling his story to another drunk."
Alone, an alcoholic cannot resist alcohol. The self alone -- self-will or self-discipline -- will not work. What works is asking for help from a
non-self-centered perspective. AA is an astonishing mutual-help organization, because alcohol and drugs are diseases of
My latest novel, The Spirit of the Place, took me in a new direction. I had always wanted to go back to my small town
on the Hudson River and join my old mentor, a family doctor, in practice. Life had taken me elsewhere, but the beauty of fiction is that you can do in
a novel what you haven't in the world.