The Lost Art of Listening
“Pain is often a sign that something has to change.” ~Mark Nepo
In the last two decades of our so called ‘progress’, we are less healthy, happy, and suffer from an unprecedented level of ‘soul-loss’. We are more depressed and anxious feel a greater loss of meaning than ever before.
Over the past four decades of being in Medicine, I have seen patient centered care decline at an accelerated rate, especially since electronic medical records and commoditization of physicians and patients was normalized by the corporate medical machine.
During my medical training, a great emphasis was placed on listening. Yes, listening.
I found that listening to my patients not only connected me to them as people with their life stories, but also facilitated an authentic exchange between doctor and patient. This exchange was essential for collaboratively uncovering the causes of disease and effective solutions for healing. Today, four decades later, the majority of patients I see complain that their physicians either did not have time to listen to them, or did not know how. They were given a canned diagnosis and a canned prescription to treat their various symptoms in 10 minutes, and the remainder of their story was dismissed. In short, they were neither listened to nor witnessed. They left their appointment feeling pathologized, shamed and no better, in fact worse than when they arrived, after receiving the label of a psychological disorder for ‘complaining’ about their symptoms.
What a patient says about their condition can offer vital clues to arrive at an accurate diagnosis. The art of listening is layered. While uncovering the root causes, listening also offers the experience of being witnessed for the patient, a gift that can deeply impact the healing process. A patient’s history, their story, opinion, experience, biology, and biography all play into the unfolding experience of health and illness. Since most patients don’t see a physician until their symptoms manifest, it is critical for physicians to take the time to listen to what they are saying. But these days, the corporate medical machine does not provide more than just a few minutes to the physician per patient visit, as its profit margin depends on patient volume, not quality of care or time taken to arrive at a diagnosis or treatment plan. In fact, relationship is not valued at all.
If the medical system was graded on patient care today, it would likely fail as a healing system. Not only is it not relational, it doesn’t regard scientific method either while arriving at treatments. It merely follows cookie cutter protocols for symptom management. Yet, we continue to access it since it is the only available option for most. Holistic medical practitioners listen, but many do not practice evidence based medicine. The absence of scientific method by holistic practitioners can also render it unsafe in many respects.
Traditional Medicine is good at treating trauma, acute infections, and conditions requiring surgical intervention. For chronic and lifestyle related diseases, (which are most of what our population suffers from), it is virtually ineffective and in fact does more harm than good. It has failed us for nearly five decades in assisting with women’s health, chronic pain, chronic illness, cancer healing and the prevention and reversal of chronic illnesses in addition to mental health conditions.
Forty years ago, when the art of listening was valued, I observed my patients always felt better when I took the time to listen. They felt heard, validated, witnessed, cared for, and supported. They still do today. Not only is medicine a science, it is also an art, and a large portion of that art relies on the quality of how deeply the practitioner listens. People ask me, how I am able to take the time to listen to my patients. The answer is simple – I do not work for Corporate Medicine or serve their value system. I left this system nearly three decades ago, to never look back. I was not willing to compromise patient care for profit margin.
Practicing medicine that was patient-centered, filled my life with meaning. In addition to practicing high standard of care medicine, I cultivate relationships and bear witness to my patients life journeys. Making this choice cost me an affluent life but I have never regretted sacrificing affluence for meaning.
Physicians enter medicine with a deep desire to heal, but the environment they are trained in conditions them to adapt to a different set of values. By the time their training is over, they are changed; their vision for healing is for the most part, replaced by serving the corporate machine.
The corporate system is based on patriarchy. Patriarchal values value product over process, fixing over healing, doing over being. It rushes to accomplish the goal, of getting to the next patient. When your eye is on the goal, you miss the present moment. The wisdom of what is needed for healing is actually present in that moment.
The art of listening has been one of our core and primary offerings to each other since the beginning of time. It is the most powerful healing gift we can give to one other. Maybe when we reclaim this for ourselves and our patients, in some small way, we can restore our craft of Medicine with our deep intention for healing. Maybe then, our patients can once again feel received and the sacred can find its way back into our exam rooms.
Small steps towards transformation can heal our culture. As technology eclipses our humanity, we must reclaim the heart of why we are here together and begin listening to how we need to be present for each other.
©October2022, July2018 Kalpana (Rose) M. Kumar M.D., CEO and Medical Director, The Ommani Center for Integrative Medicine, Pewaukee, WI. www.ommanicenter.com Author of Becoming Real: Reclaiming Your Health in Midlife (2nd Edition), Medial Press, 2014. Dr. Kumar is currently accepting new patients. Call 262.695.5311 for an appointment, either virtual or in-person for those free of symptoms.