the prairie doc

How to practice humanity in medicine


What does it mean to practice humanity in medicine? The phrase is used as a tagline and in book titles. Humanity and compassion in medicine is touted as something to aspire to, a noble accomplishment. But in reality, the biomedical model of health, the business model for healthcare, is not set up to support it. Algorithms and best practices set forth by insurance companies and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid do not account for the time required to establish meaningful human interaction between patient and caregiver.

This conundrum can be frustrating. Understanding the nuances of each individual patient and each situation cannot be rushed. Yet opting to practice ‘slow medicine’ can have negative ramifications; constantly running behind schedule, having more work than one can handle and knowing that there are more critical and needy patients waiting to be seen.

Thankfully, the benefits far outweigh the frustrations. Medical professionals who choose to share in the human condition with patients are better able to care for the whole person in a way that is nurturing and fulfilling to both parties. When we are successful in this effort to see our own fear and our own death and our own vulnerability in our patients, we will meet them and treat them with an open mind and open heart. We will listen actively, without bias or judgement, and we will do what is best for them in this moment in their life.

Regardless of our profession, experiencing a sense of powerlessness can creep into us and lead to isolation and avoidance. We can lose connectedness with our own emotions and our own self. Striving to have an awareness and acceptance of grief, pain, and knowing when to accept our inability to change circumstances, can help us avoid feelings of helplessness.

Being a doctor helped create who I am as a person. I am grateful for all the patients who have enriched my life and taught me lessons of humility, joy, interconnectedness and impermanence.

My patients and my experiences have indeed opened my mind and my heart. In my exam rooms, my patients and I collaborate in a communion of sorts. We share and connect as we learn about and better understand each other. That is what it means to practice humanity in medicine.

Perhaps these words by one of my favorite authors David Whyte say it best, “Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into the conversation. Pay attention to everything in the world as if it is alive. Realize everything has its own discrete existence outside your story. By doing this, you open to the gifts and lessons the world has to give you.”

Joy Falkenburg, M.D., a family medicine physician in Custer, South Dakota, is a contributing Prairie Doc® columnist and guest host this week on the Prairie Doc® television show. For free and easy access to the entire Prairie Doc® library, visit and follow Prairie Doc® on Facebook featuring On Call with the Prairie Doc® a medical Q&A show streaming on Facebook and broadcast on SDPB most Thursdays at 7 p.m. central.


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