Love in Medicine

Love has a place in medicine and the care is so much better

July is perhaps the most sacred time of the year for me. A time to slow down, reflect, remember. To pause and honour, to walk and write. In the space of a quieter pace and the dark, I have found myself immersed in an accidental study of love.

I have been drawn to people all my life, what is it just now about love that has my attention? This July almost every podcast, book and movie I have turned to has spoken of love. The universe works in mysterious ways and our attention shapes who we are… Perhaps everyone is talking about love, in a sort of post pandemic awakening?

Bob Chapman, CEO of Barry-Wehmiller, a global engineering and equipment manufacturing company is my leadership role model. Bob knows a lot about leadership, especially the kind that is compassionate and people centric. 

Bob started paying attention to these ideas 15 years ago when he attended a family friend’s wedding. He noticed all the love around the young couple, and it occurred to him, that every person, every worker, is someone’s precious child. Then he started to think about how people who feel unseen, under valued, taken for granted at work, go home tired, frustrated and unhappy. The impact of their work environment ripples out in unhelpful ways into their relationships at home, infecting the community so to speak.

In recent times Bob has been asking why don’t we talk about ‘loved ones caring for loved ones’ when we think about people at work. The hospitality worker, the doctor and nurse, the team member in his manufacturing plant. Each person feeling loved, valued, seen. And the contagiousness of this, in the way the person then interacts with the people they meet. When you feel cared for, your capacity to care for others is hugely amplified.

Bob gives about 50 talks a year and he says he has yet to meet someone that this idea hasn’t resonated with. He says we have failed to teach leadership, rather we have taught production and financial management. In healthcare we have certainly valued efficiency over effectiveness in my opinion. Bob describes this as a poverty of dignity and says we need to teach people how to care.

Like Bob I have met many people in healthcare who say they don’t have time to care. And like him I have asked too often, “how can a caring organisation not have time to care?”

The way we treat each other influences our health. In healthcare we are worried about words like love because we are careful about having clear boundaries, for good reason, to protect the patient and the doctor. Doctors often cite boundary dilemmas in coaching. The Australian medical code of ethics describes professional boundaries as behaving in ways that “warrant the trust and respect of the community.”

Does having a clear boundary preclude love? When I ask myself what is love I think about generosity, warmth, kindness, forgiveness, understanding, respect, trust and yes, dignity. I think of relationship that seeks to understand, that recognises each person in the relationship and that is optimistic, invested. Medicine wants to trust and be trusted, respect and be respected. This sounds like love to me.

In fact, love may reinforce holding a boundary. Ask yourself why you hold or cave when it comes to your boundaries. Is it out of fear, compliance, care? Love?

What if we approached every human we met with love, including when we were at work. The kind of love that is hopeful, holds a curious intent for the other person to leave our interaction feeling seen, heard, valued, respected. Loved. Cared for, cared about.

My cardiologist friend Dr Jonathan Fisher wrote on Linkedin a month ago “I’ve learned that more than any medicine I can prescribe, a warm and loving presence is the best medicine.” Can you hold your boundaries as doctor AND be a loving presence with your patients? Can you meet your colleagues from an intention of love? What stops you? Is it that you feel unloved, under valued? Who will start, who will interrupt this pattern?

Good intimate relationships, whether between intimate romantic partners, close friends or family members are protective and enhancing of our health. When we love another, we are more readily empathic towards them, more compassionate, kinder, more forgiving and patient. Gallup have concluded that having a best friend at work is protective too, strongly linked to engagement in the work, more fun and innovation, less accidents at work and more safety. When I think of my best friends I feel the warm inner glow of love.

So much of the work we have done in healthcare has been delivered without love. For many years we have been taught to show no emotion of any kind, let alone love. What sort of madness is this? How can a person care for the sick and the vulnerable, the weak or deranged among us, without love?

Love is the great connector. An attitude of love is curious of the other, it invites connection and recognises potential in the other. Loving and feeling loved creates a sense of belonging, meeting our primal psychological need to be safe. When we are in the company of loved ones we relax, our nervous system can come into balance, we can be vulnerable enough to grow and learn about who we are and accept ourselves as enough. Love encompasses so much that is uplifting. Generosity, hope, belonging, excitement, connection and happiness. Love remembers the interconnected reality of being human.

Love is dignified. Love heals. Love is essential for care of each other, for survival.

When we pay attention to love, we can go beyond what poet Mary Oliver describes as reporting like a field guide. Doctors can be so much more than field guides, helpful though they are. I imagine a world of healthcare where we all act from love. Then we will truly care with empathy and attention. Loved ones taking care of loved ones.

This essay was inspired by those below, I am grateful to you.

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