Health & Family

Treat the disease, yes – but also treat the patient

As a longtime medical reporter and sometime patient advocate for friends and relatives, I've observed a lot of surgery and sat in on many doctors' appointments.

But I had seldom been a patient myself until, at the end of May, I got shingles.

After several days of severe lower back pain, and before I'd even developed a tell-tale rash, I got a diagnosis from my very alert family doctor.

I gladly accepted prescriptions for Valtrex (an antiviral) and for Vicodin and Naproxen (for pain). Then I took two weeks off to rest and recover.

Everything I've read about shingles suggested that it is brought on by stress. I took it as a sign that I needed to examine my life.

I also sought help from an acupuncturist and a homeopath. And I picked up a book by Dr. Bernie Siegel, “Love, Medicine & Miracles,” about the power of the mind-body connection.

Siegel, who has written and lectured widely on the idea of humanizing medical care and empowering patients, quotes Hippocrates, who said he would “rather know what sort of a person has a disease than what sort of disease a person has.”

He also writes: “In medical school, we learn all about disease, but we learn nothing about what disease means to the person who has it.”

“Our state of mind has an immediate and direct effect on our state of body.”

This all makes sense to me.

But I'm struck by how little of this philosophy has been incorporated into medical care.

At the doctors' office and at the hospital, where I went for a CT scan to rule out other problems, I sat in sterile, cold rooms where I waited, usually alone, for someone to join me or tell me where to go next. At the radiology department, a receptionist asked for my insurance card and said, rather curtly, that I was sixth in line.

Little did I know how long it would take (more than two hours), how much it would cost ($2,700) and how involved it would be. Every 15 minutes for an hour, I had to drink a glass of lemonade-like liquid until I thought I would burst. Then I was asked to lie in the CT scanner while being injected with something that made me feel suddenly hot all over and as if I'd just wet my pants.

On the other hand, the alternative practitioners barely kept me waiting. Exam rooms and offices featured natural light, plants and soothing music. They asked me if the temperature was OK. (One even turned on a space heater.) They asked about the stresses in my life. And I always knew what it would cost, up front.

You might think these are small things, but they made me feel better even before the treatments began to work.

If this is like the placebo effect, so be it. Siegel has some words for that, too: “The placebo effect is not only real but of great importance.”

I'm a big fan of my doctors and am grateful for the drugs that helped me get over the infection and endure the pain. But I think the acupuncturist and the homeopath are helping me “heal” in a larger sense.

It would be good for all of us if doctors got more training in, and took more time to consider, the “mind” side of illness.