This post is the first of a series on medical lessons learned from movies. We begin with a look at the life of Dr. Hunter “Patch” Adams, as portrayed in the 1998 eponymous biopic, “Patch Adams.” The film, starring Robin Williams as the titular character, is not all fact but holds evergreen inspiration for providers, hospital administrators, and the healthcare community at large—specifically regarding the role interpersonal interactions with patients play in the quality of care.
Patch Adams brought one valuable lesson drawn from the life and career of Dr. Hunter “Patch” Adams, to light: You have to treat the patient as well as the disease. If you saw the film, you will recall, in Adam’s case, that included infusing humor and crazy antics into the clinical encounter.
Both in the film and in life, Adams took exception to how he perceived doctors traditionally acting — as superior to the patient.
One line spoken by Dean Walcott, the rigid dean of the medical school and Adams’ chief antagonist, during a lecture to first-year medical students stereotypically summed up the mindset of physicians at the time: “I am going to train the humanity out of you and make you somebody better: doctors.”
That set the tone for the ongoing conflict between two schools of thought – personified by the tension between Adams and Walcott.
Adams, with his people before policy philosophy, challenged (and to some extent made a mockery of) the medical community’s conventional wisdom that patients don’t need a friend, they need a doctor.
The truth is, one side is not wholly right and the other wholly wrong. Both are needed. The professionalism, clinical acumen, and finely-honed skills physicians have acquired through years of discipline, training, and experience are just as necessary as the need for empathy and compassion. Both are vital aspects of the healing arts.
The healthcare industry’s emphasis on improving the quality of care by putting the patient at the center of clinical practice — patient experience — is the best representation of the balance between these two poles.
Was there a need for such antagonism during the time Adams was in medical school? Maybe. But that is no longer the case. Hospital administrators, doctors, NPs, PAs, nurses, and other clinicians clearly understand that their role is to improve the patient’s quality of life, not just “delay death,” to quote Adams.
Another theme that surfaced throughout the film was the idea of looking past (although not discounting) hospital policies and procedures to see the heart of what the practice of medicine is all about: the patient.
In many ways, the “people before policy” philosophy, advocated so strongly by Adams, mirrors SCP Health’s core values of agility, courage, collaboration, and respect.
We are willing to adopt new behaviors in keeping with the changing healthcare environment. Like Adams, we do what’s needed to make a difference in the lives of our patients. We treat others — patients and providers alike — with dignity and respect. We work together as an interconnected team to ensure positive patient experience through the entire continuum of care.
An SCP Health blog post from 2018 — “5 Ways ED Clinical Providers Can Improve Patient Experience” — aptly illustrates our approach to compassionate patient care in a way, we think, Adams would appreciate:
“What you communicate to the patient and his or her family is one thing, but how you do it is another. Express empathy in the way you speak, ask for feedback (to ensure they understand what you told them), and listen to their responses with minimal interruption … taking time to stop, look, and listen is priceless. It shows respect and demonstrates that you value the patient as a human being.”
In his eloquent monologue near the end of the film — a defense presented before the medical board and a packed audience — Adams asks a fundamental, yet profound question, “Is not a doctor someone who helps someone else?” He then makes this assertion, an epithet that represents the very reason why SCP Health exists, “The doctor’s mission is not just to prevent death but improve the quality of life.”
We can’t all be a Patch Adams, and neither should we. The lesson of the film and Adams’s life and career is that we do our best to provide compassionate, professional care to our fellow human beings. To paraphrase Adams, when you treat the person and the disease, you win, no matter what the outcome.