McMaster University

McMaster University

Faculty of
Health Sciences

Bringing humanitarianism back to medicine

By Suzanne Morrison
Published: October 22, 2008
Robert Buckman
Dr. Robert Buckman, medical oncologist at Toronto’s Princess Margaret Hospital, professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Toronto

It’s well accepted that physicians, nurses and health care professionals are caring and compassionate to those caught in difficult circumstances — a critical illness, a terminal diagnosis and near death.

Yet — too many patients complain it’s in the moments when they most needed a shoulder to lean on, that a sympathetic ear wasn’t forthcoming.

Medical oncologist Dr. Robert Buckman will explore this issue when he delivers the annual Enkin Lectureship at McMaster University on Wednesday, Oct. 29 from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. in the Health Sciences Centre, Room 1A1. His lecture is titled, "Bringing Humanitarianism Back to Medicine: Intuition or Tuition?"

The hypothesis for his presentation is that many practicing clinicians genuinely want to behave in a humanitarian fashion, but simply don’t know how to do it.

During the lecture, the focus on clinical medical training will be reviewed and shown that the "fix-it" approach in many ways inadvertently excludes a patient’s emotional responses to what is happening to them.

The lecture will show that acknowledging the emotions experienced by a patient is a relatively straightforward "add-on" skill that can be readily acquired by clinicians and which greatly enhances a patient’s satisfaction.

Details of the empathic response will be presented, followed by time for discussion and feedback.

Discussants with Buckman are Eileen Hutton, associate professor and assistant dean of the midwifery program, and Gordon Guyatt, professor of the Department of Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics at McMaster.

Dr. Buckman is well qualified to lead a discussion on this topic. He is a medical oncologist at Toronto’s Princess Margaret Hospital, a professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Toronto and an adjunct professor at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, University of Texas.

He qualified as a physician from Cambridge University in 1972 and completed his training in medical oncology at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London, including laboratory research which led to a Ph.D. In 1985, he immigrated to Toronto where he later designed and taught an undergraduate course in breaking bad news for which he won the University of Toronto teaching award in 1989.

For the last 20 years, he has had a second award-winning career in communications and broadcasting, presenting science and medicine television programs in Britain and Canada. His series Magic or Medicine won him a Gemini award. Together with Monty Python’s John Cleese he produces a series of videos which provide basic facts on a variety of common medical problems.

Buckman has written 14 books, including How to Break Bad News (a textbook for physicians) and, most recently, Cancer is a Word, Not a Sentence, a plain-language guide to cancer treatment and other major issues for newly diagnosed patients.

The Enkin Lectureship honours Dr. Murray Enkin, professor emeritus, department of clinical epidemiology and biostatistics and department of obstetrics and gynecology. He is also senior consultant to the Centre for eHealth Innovation.

Dr. Enkin began practice in the 1950s as a family doctor. With his wife, Eleanor, he has made many important contributions to clinical research in pregnancy and childbirth. The husband-and-wife team were strong advocates for family-centred maternity care, consumer choices in obstetrics and midwifery practice.

The departments of clinical epidemiology and biostatistics and obstetrics and gynecology jointly host the Enkin Lectureship which reflects a focus on the essential role of science in the service of humanity, and the restoration or introduction of humanitarian values into science in general, and into clinical research in particular.

The lectureship is awarded to individuals from any country that is engaged in clinical research, challenging existing methods or accepted ideas in the content or conduct of clinical research, and can deliver a high-quality lecture that appeals to an audience with broad interests.

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