The New Hippocratic oath should be: I will remember that there is an art to medicine as well as a science; and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drugs.
With this manifesto delivered by Professor Jonathan Halevy as the rallying cry, the 12th annual UNESCO Chair in Bioethics World Conference was underway. Highlighting various issues of concern in the world of medicine, this years conference focused on bioethics, medical ethics and health law. An underlying theme of compassionate care pervaded the meeting as well – serving to remind that empathy is just as important as medical knowledge.
“As more and more medicine is moving into a kind of robot environment where your smartphone is actually the level of medical interaction, the role of the physician is to humanize that experience,” says Dr. Doreen Maller.
Dr. Maller is an associate professor and Chair of the Holistic Counseling Psychology Department She attended the conference along with one of her students.
“It was actually an amazing presentation,” she says. “It’s an amazing time for holistic studies because the words we’ve been using, the thoughts we’ve been thinking are so mainstream now.”
As a presenter at the conference, Dr. Maller spoke on addiction and its effects on the family. Afterwards she, along with fellow presenter Dr. Constance Scharff and student Karla Papula, discussed addiction counseling and the necessity for compassionate empathy when dealing with patients.
“I think it’s really important in the addiction work that I do to really understand that humanist context,” says Dr. Scharff.
As the Senior Addiction Research Fellow and Director of Addiction Research at Cliffside Malibu Treatment Center, Dr. Scharff has an intimate knowledge of addiction and the issues stemming from it.
“So much of what the addict needs, at least initially, is for someone to hear them and hear their pain.”
Focusing on the needs of the whole person, as opposed to just their pathology or medical condition, is central to holistic counseling.
“Holistic counseling psychology’s cornerstones are warmth, compassion, empathy, [and] human connection,” asserts Dr. Maller. “Meeting the client where they are with an open and compassionate heart.”
One of the problems with the medicalization of certain psychological and psychiatric disorders is that they become hyper-medicalized and hyper-pathologized,” adds Dr. Scharff. “We don’t see addicts as humans. We label them as bad because they have bad behaviors.”
This stigma follows the addict throughout their lives and can come from all sides, even family. Oftentimes it’s family that causes the patient to relapse because they fail to make the necessary changes.
“Those changes on the family side are very, very difficult to make,” admits Dr. Scharff. “On the addict side they’re obvious. It’s much more subtle work on the family side.”
There is hope, however. With time, effort and faith, patients and their families do get better and go on to live healthy, impactful lives. In order for this to happen, all parties involved must trust and believe in the process.
“You can’t do this work if you don’t think there’s going to be an emergence at the end of it,” says Dr. Maller.
“We have really good treatment methods now,” adds Dr. Scharff. “But we have to give the time for them to work.”
Addiction affects millions of people from all walks of life. Coping with and healing these individuals takes more than just textbook psychology and prescriptions; it takes a holistic approach that includes empathy and real human connection.