Doctors should be more like gardeners than mechanics, says physician, author and historian Victoria Sweet, M.D., Ph.D. An advocate of “slow medicine,” she believes patients’ well-being can become a casualty of today’s emphasis on high-tech, high-pressure medical care.
Sweet will be the keynote speaker at the Eighth Annual Cindy Wool Memorial Seminar on Humanism in Medicine, March 29 at 7 p.m. at the Marriott University Park Hotel, 880 E. Second Street. Her talk, “God’s Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine,” is based on her experiences working as a doctor at Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco, and on her book of the same title.
The seminar is presented by the Maimonides Society of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona in conjunction with the University of Arizona College of Medicine. First held in 2010, the event honors Cindy Wool, the wife of Dr. Steven A. Wool, who died in November 2008 at age 54 as a result of complications from acute lymphocytic leukemia.
Sweet says her first 10 years as a doctor convinced her there was “something really missing” from today’s medical practice. She moved to Laguna Honda Hospital — formerly the nation’s last almshouse, and a descendent of the Hôtel Dieu (God’s hotel) that cared for the sick in the Middle Ages — where she stayed for 20 years. There, she encountered a slower-paced, less high-tech approach to medicine. Set on 62 acres, Laguna Honda features gardens, an aviary, a greenhouse and a barnyard where patients can recuperate mentally and physically as they tend plants, interact with animals and “watch chickens hatch,” she says. According to Sweet, studies of slow medicine show improved outcomes and reduced stress for both patients and doctors.
It was Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century German Benedictine abbess, who first showed Sweet the concept at the heart of slow medicine. Hildegard’s book, “Causae et Curae,” written in Latin, emphasized the connection between the “green” health of plants and human health, each within a balanced system. Hildegard’s concept of medicine as a kind of gardening captivated Sweet, and the book became the subject of her Ph.D. thesis in medical history.
In Hildegard’s model, says Sweet, “The body is more like a plant than a machine. The difference is that the body can heal itself.” Fast and slow medicine are equally important, she says — but not to the exclusion of each other. “They both work together. You need to have both in your black bag.” For example, she says, a patient may need an appendectomy immediately, but rather than discharging her as soon as possible, spending more time with her and giving her longer to heal may yield better results.
High-tech scans, techniques and interventions are wonderful, crucial, and often life-saving for patients in need of immediate care, says Sweet. At the same time, slow medicine — a growing movement that takes into account the patient’s mental, physical, emotional and social well-being — is an important factor, especially for patients with chronic or incurable diseases. But, says Sweet, care is constrained by increasing bureaucracy that demands doctors spend more time on computerized systems than with their patients. “Doctors are so stressed. It’s a system that’s broken. Slow medicine is about removing what’s in the way, and putting back what’s missing.”
Tickets to Sweet’s keynote lecture are $18 (free for medical students) and are available online at jfsa.org or by calling Karen Graham at 577-9393, ext. 118, by March 22. The lecture will be preceded at 5:30 p.m. by a VIP reception that includes dinner and tickets to the seminar for $100.
Sweet will also speak at noon on March 29 at the Arizona Health Sciences Center in the DuVal Auditorium at Banner-University Medical Center, where she will present “Slow Medicine and the Efficiency of Inefficiency.” Medical students, faculty and staff should RSVP by March 22 to rgrant@medadmin.
Kaye Patchett is a freelance writer and editor in Tucson.