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A challenge for new doctors: Focus on the patient, not just the symptoms

This is a version of a convocation speech I delivered on May 14, 2015, to the graduating class of medical doctors at the University of Manitoba.

Mr. Chancellor, Mr. President, distinguished guests, soon-to-be MDs and their deeply indebted family members. I’m touched and humbled to receive an honorary degree from the University of Manitoba. Thank you for letting me share this special moment with you.

Courtesy University of Manitoba Jun. 09 2015, 11:00 AM EDT
Video: André Picard’s advice to Canada’s future doctors from his 30 years of health reporting
I’m not a doctor. I never will be. I’m a lowly journalist. I tell stories.

For almost 30 years I’ve tried to help Canadians understand their health system and their medical care.

In that time, I’ve seen tremendous advances in medicine and I’ve met, quite literally, thousands of health professionals, from students to Nobel Prize-winners – and patients, from those with rare genetic mutations to those with everyday ailments, from those cured miraculously to those who died needlessly.

Today, I’d like to take a few minutes to share some of what I’ve learned from telling their stories.

One of the greatest privileges in our society is to have the letters MD after your name. Those two letters confer great power. And with that power comes great responsibility, to quote Voltaire – or Spider-Man, depending on your literary predilections.

Shortly, you will be taking the Hippocratic oath. You’ve probably all heard that it says: “First do no harm.” It doesn’t actually – that’s just bad media reporting.

But it does say a lot of important things. I think the line that matters most in the oath is this: “Whatsoever house I may enter, my visit shall be for the convenience and advantage of the patient.”

Sadly, too many physicians fail to honour that part of the pledge.

We have built a sickness care system rather than a health system. We have designed that system for the convenience of practitioners, not patients.

Modern medicine has become so specialized that many physicians treat specific syndromes and body parts, and the patient herself gets lost in the process. We have filled our temples of medicine with such bedazzling high-tech tools that we’ve forgotten that we should treat people where they live.

In our desire to cure, we over-treat.

We fail too often to say the three most important words in medicine: I don’t know. We see death as a failure, instead of aspiring to make patients comfortable and at peace at end of life.

In our unrelenting quest for efficiency and measurement, we too often lose sight of what really matters. The patient.

What does your patient want? What are his or her goals? Those are the questions that must guide your practice.

For some of your patients, the goal is to repair their acute woes, to help them live long. But most of your patients will be older, and have a number of chronic conditions and be nearing the end of life. Their goals are different.

They’re not going to be cured. You have to focus on their quality of life.

They want to be at home. They don’t want to fall. They don’t want to be in pain. They don’t want to be a burden. They don’t want to be alone. They don’t expect miracles – but they would like respect.

They don’t fear dying. They fear losing their autonomy and their dignity. They don’t care about your metrics, or your age-adjusted mortality rates, or your fancy new genomic test. They want to be listened to, and heard.

We hear a lot these days about personalized medicine, about drugs and treatments that can be tailored to specific genomic and epigenetic markers. But you know what people really long for: personal medicine, not personalized medicine.

They crave a human connection. Not just care, but caring.

The very best medicine you can offer your patients is a listening ear. The very best treatment you can offer them is a compassionate heart.

Now you may be sitting there thinking, this is all feel-good nonsense. It’s not. The more sophisticated and complex medicine becomes, the more the basics matter.

What did you learn in medical school? Anatomy, biochemistry, genomics, countless mnemonics to help you remember bits of knowledge; you know how to deliver babies and treat cancer and diabetes and depression and asthma, take out people’s appendix and do MRIs and PCIs and countless other things.

What you’re going to learn now, in the real world, is that physical woes are the least of patients’ worries. Their health problems aren’t strictly caused by mutating cells, opportunistic pathogens and poor genes, but by poverty, lack of education, poor housing, stress and social isolation.

You’re going to, sooner or later, learn humility. And the earlier you do, the better the doctor you’re going to be.

In this, the Internet age, we are drowning in information, but starving for wisdom. I urge you, as you forge long, successful and prosperous careers, to not just be smart, but be wise.

In every interaction you have, embrace the ancient wisdom of Hippocrates: “Whatsoever house I may enter, my visit shall be for the convenience and advantage of the patient.”

André Picard is a health reporter and columnist at The Globe and Mail, where he has been a staff writer since 1987. He is also the author of three bestselling books

Ontario University Institute of Technology is proud to present Mr Andre Picard with the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws

Mr. Andre Picard

We are proud to confer upon Mr. André Picard the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa for his advocacy and tireless efforts to improve the Canadian health-care system.

Mr. Picard is an award-winning health journalist, best-selling author, renowned speaker and an advocate for improving the health of Canadians. Widely considered the top health journalist in the country, his approach of researching, documenting and sharing health issues through the eyes of patients, health-care workers, caregivers, and other often-forgotten individuals provides compelling insight into everyday challenges.

His broad scope of research areas, including HIV/AIDS, mental illness, health-care reform, food safety, child obesity and the nursing shortage informs the public on relevant, timely and real-world issues. The light he shines on complex issues through his writing makes a positive difference on how the public, government, and policy makers work toward the better health of Canadians. He is currently the Scholar-in-Residence at the Conference Board of Canada where he has just completed a book on health-care reform.

Mr. Picard has received numerous awards, including the Centennial Prize of the Pan American Health Organization as the top public health reporter in the Americas, the Michener Prize for Meritorious Public Service Journalism from the Governor-General and the Hyman Solomon Award from the Public Policy Forum.

The Globe and Mail’s André Picard named recipient of Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Medal

The Globe and Mail

Globe and Mail public health reporter André Picard, who has already won numerous awards and accolades throughout his illustrious career as a journalist, can now add one more honour to his name: recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Medal.

Picard learned he was a recipient of the medal after coming back from a conference and discovering it on his desk. It was “a complete surprise. And a pleasant one,” he said by e-mail.

“It’s very flattering to get this kind of recognition, especially for doing something I love – writing about health.”

Picard, who has been a journalist with the Globe since 1987, is one of the top health writers in Canada and has carved a reputation as a noted public policy expert. Throughout his career, he has written on everything from the sustainability of the health-care system to the need for a national mental health strategy to developments in medical science.

In 2011, Picard won the Hyman Solomon Award for Excellence in Public Policy Journalism and in 2010, a National Newspaper Award as Canada’s top columnist. In 1993, he received the Michener Award for outstanding public service in journalism for his coverage of the tainted blood crisis. He has received many other accolades from other groups and organizations.

The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal is awarded to Canadians who have made significant contributions and achievements, and to recognize service to the community and country. It was created in commemoration of the Queen’s ascension to the throne on Feb. 6, 1952. A total of 60,000 medals have been given to deserving Canadians over the past year.