In a wonderful essay, physician and educator Faith Fitzgerald writes about the importance of curiosity in health care. As dean of students at UC, Davis’ School of Medicine she sometimes heard complaints from politicians about medical students being “insensitive, mechanistic, technocratic, inhumane brutes.” After a good deal of research, she asked herself, “What is kindness as perceived by patients?” Her answer was
“Perhaps it is curiosity: ‘How are you? Who are you? How can I help you? Tell me more. Isn’t that interesting?’ And patients say, ‘He asked me a lot of questions’; ‘She really seemed to care about what was going on with me.’ Is curiosity the same, in some cases, as caring?”
Fitzgerald writes that
An endowed lectureship at my medical school allows us to invite Nobel Prize-winning scientists to visit and lecture for several days. What impressed me most about my conversations with these luminaries was their extraordinary broad range of interests, their enthusiasm, and their thought patterns. One thinks science has a sequential and controlled pattern of logical ideas, firmly grounded in antecedent principles and constantly cleansed of intellectual debris by the abrasion of skepticism. Listening to Nobel laureates in medicine was revelatory. . . The scientists seemed oblivious to intellectual constraints and unconcerned about seeming naive or unknowledgeable. . .”
She then asks
What does curiosity have to do with the humanistic practice of medicine? Couldn’t it just convert patients into objects of analysis? I believe it is curiosity that converts strangers (the objects of analysis) into people we can empathize with. To participate in the feelings and ideas of one’s patients–to empathize–one must be curious enough to know the patients: their characters, cultures, spiritual and physical responses, hopes, past and social surrounds. Truly curious people go beyond science into art, history, literature, and language as part of the practice of medicine. Both the science and art of medicine are advanced by curiosity.”
Fitzgerald writes that efficiency and time often undermine curiosity. For instance,
One senior resident once presented a patient in morning report and, as part of the physical examination, mentioned a scar in the patient’s groin. When I asked how the scar had been acquired, she said, ‘He told me he was bitten by a snake there.’ ‘How did that happen?’ I asked. ‘I don’t know,’ she said.
How could that be? How could one not ask? The imagination runs riot with the possibilities of how this man got bitten by a snake in the groin. But the resident was too busy (or not curious enough) to ask!”
“What is the reward of curiosity? To the patient, it is the interest and physical propinquity of the physicians, which is therapeutic in and of itslef. To the physician, curiosity leads not only to diagnoses, but to great stories and memories, those irreplaceable ‘moments of medicine’ that we all live for.”
You can read the entire essay through the link below, and I recommend you do–especially because the story she ends it with is very good.
Click to access Fitzgerald_AnnInternMed_1999_130_70_Curiosity.pdf