Injecting Humanism Into Medicine

I had the good fortune of working with the late Dr. James Wallace, the first oncologist in the State of Vermont, who came out of retirement to practicing part-time at the cancer center in Bennington. He would talk about the early days at the National Institute of Health (NIH) when chemotherapy was mostly experimental. In passing, he told me that a colleague at that time was Dr. Sidney Farber, the name attached to Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. While at NIH he worked with pioneers in the new field of oncology.


Dr. Wallace would tell stories about his practice in Rutland, VT and how he cared for his patients with limited cancer treatment options. He would ask if they had food and heating oil. If they needed assistance, he had the staff find resources to help. He made sure to ask about their support system. Dr. Wallace understood the importance of showing interest in the lives of his patients, not just the disease. I can also picture him at the annual staff Christmas party wearing kilts, honoring his Scottish heritage (he also loved a good Scotch whiskey). Below his kilts you would see his prosthesis, a result of surgery from his own cancer treatment. When he spoke about the experience of facing cancer, he knew what he was talking about.


I admired Dr. Wallace and he had a genuine appreciation for my role on the cancer care team. He wanted to be sure that his patients truly understood the potential benefits and limitations of treatments. He was interested in knowing about their supportive care needs. My notes provided that feedback and he would always thank me for letting him know if he overlooked something so he could address it. He promoted the medical humanist communication model because it gave him access to information he valued.


When interviewed for an Associated Press story about the medical humanist model he said, “I see the irony but also the necessity in an age of ever-increasing medical specialization there would be a need for someone whose specialty would be injecting humanism back into medicine. The technology has advanced so quickly that physicians have to spend all their time dealing with technical, biological and therapeutic aspects and have little time to deal with patients as a whole person.”


The newspaper story was published in 2003. The same complex technology issues are true today. Now, healthcare providers find themselves facing even more pressures and demands. With this in mind, I find it more important than ever that patients take the lead in actively engaging in decisions about their care.  What I learned as a medical humanist at a cancer center in Vermont helped me in developing SpeakSooner: A Patient’s Guide to Difficult Conversations,  a tool to help prepare patients to identify and communicate their questions and concerns. I can picture Dr. Wallace being the first oncologist to promote its use.