Eastern and Western medical paradigms have different uses for knowledge. In both systems, it is important for novices to use observable or quantifiable measurements and facts to create treatment plans for patients. None of us want a 20-something fresh out of med school, be it Eastern or Western, to assume they can take one look at us and understand our deepest existential quandaries, nor do we probably believe they can heal us with their presence.
The key to good decision making is not knowledge. It is understanding. We are swimming in the former. We are desperately lacking in the latter. … Being able to act intelligently and instinctively in the moment is possible only after a long and rigorous course of education and experience.
-Malcolm Gladwell, Blink
Yet many of us can probably call up the wizened face of some elder in our lives — a grandparent, a rabbi, a psychologist, maybe even a doctor — whose very presence and implicit understanding created space for us to deal with whatever was thrown our way: cancer, depression, war, loss of a limb, or the death of a family member.
Intense communication and intimate recognition automatically resonate and affirm the integrity of a patient’s Qi and Spirit. … Just from being and talking with Dr. Hong [an old, highly respected Chinese doctor], most patients encountered within themselves a depth of humanity deeper than the difficulty or tragedy of any illness.
– Ted Kaptchuk, The Web That Has No Weaver
Achieving this wisdom, this intuition for the vitality of others, is the highest aim for a traditional Chinese medical practitioner (Kaptchuk, 2000). In contrast, while there are wise Western doctors who practice it, knowingly or not, it is not something that Western medicine, as a system, aims for. Biomedical research is increasingly recognizing the importance of the doctor-patient encounter and the gaping hole that exists in Western medical training in this regard.
Currently, neither doctors and patients, nor plans have adequate skills in the doctor–patient relationship. (Goold & Lipkin, 1997)
Western doctor training programs that emphasize creating connection and being present with patients are sprouting up (see, for example, the growth of mindfulness-based courses for doctors). I also put forth that Western doctors and the Western medical system, from med schools to insurance companies, can tap into the available resource of alternative medical practitioners, who were trained in these skills from the beginning.
Kaptchuk, T. The Web That Has No Weaver. McGraw Hill Professional. 2000.
Gladwell, M. Blink. Little, Brown & Co. 2005.
Goold & Lipkin. “The Doctor-Patient Relationship.” SGIM Symposium on Managed Care. 1997.