Becoming Healers: Dr. Jonathan LaPook, Quinnipiac University School of Medicine Commencement
I am pleased to present this week’s Commencement Archive piece: Dr. Jonathan LaPook’s keynote address at the 2017 Quinnipiac University School of Medicine Commencement.
Dr. Jonathan LaPook is the Chief Medical Correspondent for CBS news and has served in this role since 2006. A board-certified physician in internal medicine and gastroenterology, he is also a Professor of Medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center. He attended medical school at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, and completed an internal medicine residency and a gastroenterology fellowship at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center. Dr. LaPook has received two Emmy awards for his work in 2012 and 2013 covering the national drug shortage and Boston Marathon bombings, respectively.
While Dr. LaPook is accustomed to speaking in front of crowds and cameras, this particular speech was a first for him. With great pride and humility, he addressed the very first graduating class of Quinnipiac University School of Medicine. While the event was new to everyone involved, the message Dr. LaPook delivered stems from his diverse experiences as both a physician and journalist.
Dr. LaPook discusses the semipermeable membrane—or as he puts it, an emotional wall—that lies between us (as physicians) and the patient. One must be mindful of the emotional balance that exists, and this, according to Dr. LaPook, is the first and last challenge of the art of healing.
“It starts with a decision about the emotional wall we all build between ourselves and our patients. Constructing it is tricky. You don’t want to make it too thin and porous, because that can be emotionally devastating. But you don’t want to make it too thick and impervious, because then you miss out on all the good stuff, the precious moments when you connect with a patient as a person. I treasure the time an elderly patient showed up for an office visit on a beautiful spring day, and I wheeled her over to the Central Park Zoo to watch the sea lions. No medicine I have ever prescribed has had a more powerful therapeutic response. Everybody has to find a comfort level. For me, erring on the side of “too empathetic” is the way to go. Patients pick up on it, and if they feel you really care, they’re more likely to open up to you.”
“When we're watching a movie and an important moment is about to happen, how do we know?”
Unfortunately, when caring for sick patients, other than a few beeps on the monitor, important moments don’t come with dramatic music or close-ups. There is no camera-pan to direct our attention to informative, meaningful information. We are both privileged and burdened with this responsibility of seeking out and interpreting information in order to make informed decisions.
“Well, in life, there’s no close-up and there's no change of music. You have to play the soundtrack in your own head. You have to control the zoom button yourself. You must catch that moment when the patient—consciously or unconsciously—tells you what’s the matter. You need to get them to open up to you as one human being to another. And they will not do that unless they know they are talking to a human being!”
As Dr. LaPook continues, he begins to discuss his career in journalism and its implications on his medical practice. In particular, covering global health crises has shaped his ability to communicate oftentimes complex medical information to a broad audience.
“The key is taking complex topics and presenting them in simple, accessible terms. Communicating clearly—and succinctly—is an important skill. Work on it.”
Dr. LaPook summarizes with a single piece of advice.
“Be comfortable with uncertainty. If you’ve been practicing medicine for five years and you think you have all the answers, you’re in the wrong profession.”
Although patients may expect us to have all the answers, we must not burden ourselves with this expectation. Medicine is an art, not a calculation. Physicians consume diverse clinical data not necessarily to find an answer but rather to justify a decision.
Dr. LaPook sends the graduating class out with a final message.
“What’s going to distinguish you as true healers is the way you embrace humility, compassion, and empathy. Turn away from the computer screen and look your patient straight in the eyes. Understand the extraordinary importance of listening. And realize that even when you don’t have the answer for a patient in need, you can still help—with a sympathetic ear, a reassuring touch of the hand, and by sticking by them, through sickness and health. “