Michael Attas: Considering the Christian virtues of medicine

Waco Tribune-Herald (TX) - Tuesday, April 3, 2012



Last week I was invited to speak at Belmont University by Dr. Todd Lake, the former chaplain at Baylor University. The title of the lecture he asked me to give was “Christian Health Care.”

I thought at first glance it would be relatively easy to put together. I consider myself more or less a Christian and I practice in a community that has two faith-based hospitals.

But the deeper I got into the topic the harder and more elusive it became.

How does one even begin to define the terms? Is it an adjective or a noun? Does a Christian health care system necessarily embody the teachings of Jesus? Can a health care provider who claims to be a follower of Christ yet refuses to provide care for the indigent or MedicareMedicaid patients be labeled a “Christian physician”?

Can a country that is rushing to proclaim its Christian heritage in an election year but ignores the reality of 25 percent of its population honestly trumpet its Christian beliefs? Can a devout, gentle Muslim or Hindu who gives his or her time to health care for the poor, as many of my premedical students do, be considered an anonymous “Christian”?

Unpopular answers

The answers to these and similar questions drove me deep into the wells of my beliefs and practice. And the answers that I shared with the students at Belmont are ones that I would propose we all take a moment to reflect on.

And I fully understand that they may not be popular.

Here are some simple observations gleaned from 40 years in medicine and practice in both faith-based and private, for-profit hospitals.

As it pertains to the delivery of good health care, Christian faith must embody more than a set of doctrinal beliefs or mission statements. It has to be more than a charter and a tax status. It must be a living, breathing model upon which to encounter human brokenness.

Some faith-based hospitals and systems to this well; others do not. That is reality. Some for-profit hospitals and systems do this well; others do not. That is also reality.

Some physicians embody the teachings of Jesus but would be appalled at being labeled Christians. That also is reality. Others claim to be followers of Christ and are dysfunctional human beings driven by profit and greed. That also is reality.

Some totally secular, western, industrialized countries embody what I would consider Christian practices and yet are decidedly not Christian. And some countries that proclaim such faith are models of corruption and corporate greed.

So where does this ambiguity lead us?

I told my audience at Belmont that to be considered a “Christian” model for health care, a provider should give more than lip service to three cardinal virtues.

Compassion, wisdom

The first is compassion. Simply put, a system or provider must care deeply about what it is doing and how it does it. Compassion literally means “to suffer with.” It means that we must be willing to take the suffering of our patients and their loved ones seriously.

We must listen to their stories and walk with them through the confusing myriad options they face.

Compassion is more than an emotional feeling. It is a movement that forces us to act in certain ways consistent with our proclaimed beliefs. It is action and not a touchy-feely, naive sense of concern, but a moral compass that moves us to actions based on faith.

Secondly, a system must be wise. This doesn’t mean we have all the answers as much as it means we must be good stewards of our resources. We are called to be financially conservative and accountable for our future while we provide the health care that we know we have the power and knowledge to do.

Wisdom is different than facts wielded with power and success. Some physicians have this innately at a young age; others never will.

And unfortunately it has nothing at all to do with a given religious belief system. It can be modeled and taught but until it is lived it is nothing but chaff in the wind.

And just as individuals are called to wisdom, systems and governments are also called to an accountability based on the virtue of wisdom.

Thirdly a practice or system must be just. From a biblical sense and through the eyes of Jesus, justice is more than a sense of fair play. It is more than a casual glance at a system’s vision statement, but embodies the very notion of the Judeo-Christian understanding of God and God’s kingdom.

One writer said it succinctly: “Biblical justice involves making individuals, communities and the cosmos whole by upholding goodness and impartiality.”

Thus healing — which is what we are called to participate in — is always grounded in justice. True healing in this sense is not about curing and it is not about the use of science indiscriminately. It is about wholeness in the human condition and it applies to us one and all.

Can we as healers embody these virtues as the tides of medicine change? I am not sure at all. I think it will require a drastic re-evaluation of what the phrase “Christian health care” truly implies as a core principle.

We shall see.

Dr. Michael Attas is a Waco-based physician, a medical humanities professor and an Episcopal priest. His column appears biweekly. Send email to Michael_Attas@baylor.edu.

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Record Number: 18270950
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Michael Attas: Considering the Christian virtues of medicine

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