August 4, 2011

Uncertainty is Part of Illness and Healing

By Matthew Katz, MD

Editor’s Note: Matt Katz, M.D., is a member of the External Advisory Board for the Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media.

Before I try to answer some of the questions I raised in my first post, let’s first establish the position from which I’m starting the conversation about the changing nature of health care.   So here it is:

Life is an uncertain endeavor.  When our health and lives are at risk, uncertainty is a part of illness and healing.

Episodically as a patient or caregiver, and daily as a radiation oncologist, I am witness to how people make decisions about their health.  Through medical school, residency and clinical practice I’ve also learned some from the good and bad aspects of medical training.  Sometimes risk and uncertainty are all too starkly clear, but not always.  Consciously or not, we can make decisions that affect our health.

Understanding risk and uncertainty is not easy, and explaining it can be even harder.  Even for the same illness, the way I interact with each person I see depend upon the ability to understand how the disease fits into his or her perspective.  At its core, this is what medicine is about – navigating uncertainty in the best way possible to maintain health and dignity.

While I’ll try to address more complex issues in later posts, I believe the starting point has to be the therapeutic relationship between healer and the wounded.  I use these terms rather than doctor-patient relationship because it is too confining, both historically and in the current scope of medicine.  Looking to the future, I think it is inevitable that new communication technologies affect our health.  But will it be for good or ill?

That, too, is uncertain.

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