A Radical New Take on Personalized Medicine
The science of creating a healthy new reality for healers.
Posted June 22, 2021 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- It is time for healthcare professionals to replace the struggle of work-life balance with heart-based living.
- Daily meditations, sustainable nutrition, ample sleep, and the love of family fill and refuel healthcare professionals.
- Healthcare professionals can only expect patients to try something if they are already demonstrating it.
It is clear that for physicians — who, as a profession, top the charts in struggling with exhaustion, burnout, depression, and suicide — yoga-ing harder will not treat meningitis. Meditation will not insert a stent into a blocked coronary artery. These are the moments when the assumptions of Newtonian physics and a Cartesian worldview come in handy and when we value our trained concerted responses to emergencies because they save lives.
Our environment often demands swift responses. But how much longer will we accept that our lives as physicians are determined by a culture driven by emergency and overwhelm? How many times are we willing to miss the sacred moments of dawn for the early start of our morning shift? How often are we willing to miss the scents of the soil after a summer rain while we spend our days and nights sandwiched between fluorescent lights and a linoleum floor, encased by washable walls? How often are we willing to end up at the vending machine or some equivalent lack of real nourishment? Are we really just actors in a screenplay written by the powers that be, or do we have a choice?
We do have the freedom to give attention to the personality part in us that is making this choice. I discuss this topic in a book I co-wrote with Arjuna Ardagh, as a series of letters to my goddaughter who is studying medicine: Dare to Care: How to Survive and Thrive in Today's Medical World.
So what are the ways we can change perception, and how can we heal ourselves in the midst of system deficiencies? The sages have informed us all along, but we were not ready to listen. Now science is catching up. These are some selected scientifically established factors that can sway our perception and affect our own reality and that of our patients:
Our level of energy
Science knows: When we are tired, a hill seems steeper, a rucksack feels heavier, distances seem longer, and tasks feel more daunting. We also know that sleep deprivation is one of the main causes of medical errors. Strangely, the quantity and quality of sleep are not integrated into the quality control metrics of our healthcare institutions. Until employers start realizing the benefits of taking this seriously, we are free to do it ourselves.
It is time for us healthcare professionals to actually master high-quality sleep; to measure our individual sleep requirements and ensure they are met. Yes, individual — because health care providers are humans too, and everyone finds themselves somewhere on the bell-shaped curve. Wouldn’t this be a refreshing take on “personalized” medicine?
Our sense of “enoughness”
Science knows: Hunger affects our decision-making. When we have just eaten, our decisions tend to be less self-centered and we are more inclined to serve others well. If we have a sense of “missingness” — emotional hunger or craving — we are more likely to compromise gold standard care for our own needs.
What if we arrived at work centered by a morning meditation, refreshed by energy work, filled with the love of our family, and ready to give? It is less surreal than it sounds when we actually step out of othering and take responsibility for writing the screenplay of our lives. I find joy in pursuing this journey and have replaced the struggle of work-life balance with heart-based living — regardless of context. In this way, one enoughness leads to another.
Science knows: We are made of what we eat. While many healthcare professionals still belittle the value of curing diseases with appropriate nutrition, pioneering nutritionists are now confirming what the sages told us for generations: It matters what we feed our body, mind, and soul with.
Have a look around your canteen and try to find something actually healthy. If you find 80% of what’s on offer is processed, high-carb content, non-organic, non-local, or packaged in plastic, you are not alone. Selecting truly revitalizing nutrition is an art only a few have learned during medical training, and it is only rarely promoted in hospitals. Why do we accept giving our body less than it deserves? What if every cell of your body was grateful for the fresh energy received and every bite was a smile of loving self-care — just because you deserve it?
Science knows: At least 50% of the healing process is the therapeutic relationship. Much has been written about it. Therapist authenticity is among the more neglected topics. I would rank it as a number one priority and define it as being present, compassionate, and real.
As a system, we have not even started to take healthcare seriously — in direct contrast to any other profession, where we expect the professional to be proficient in what their occupation is about. We get away with knowledge about health. It is like learning the violin from someone who knows all about playing the violin but has never learned or played it themselves.
We know professionally about the value of high-quality sleep, and we struggle to follow even the basic advice we give our patients. We know about the value of truly nourishing our body, mind, and soul. What is in the way of going the extra mile for truly organic and local freshness? Unless we learn to appreciate the value in our own being, how can we expect our patients to feel well-advised if our stance is not trustworthy?
There is something to learn about becoming a better health care professional: Until we fully explore our own inner landscape and understand our own roadblocks, how can we expect to be seen as authentic health advisors by our patients? Instead of blaming our patients and calling them mal-compliant, we may benefit from looking at our own lack of compassionate self-awareness. By taking a dose of our own medicine, we may start to become credible role models. We can only expect our patients to try something if we're already demonstrating it.
These are only some of the factors influencing our perception by changing perspective, which will empower us to improve the lives of healthcare professionals. Shifting our course away from burnout towards giving from a state of overflow will demand small steps, consistency, and time. I trust that the healthcare community will engage in the conversation so that we can bring our little lights together to start a wildfire around the globe.
Bonhoeffer J, Ardagh A. Dare to Care. 2020. How to survive and thrive in today’s medical world. Heart-Based Medicine Foundation, Basel.