How Ancient Medicine Reveals Modern Medicine’s Change of Focus

By: Chiara Tondi Resta

At the end of March, the UGA Classics department’s hard work finally culminated in the long-planned, two-day lecture event, “Ancient Medicine and the Modern Physician.” The event featured four separate lectures and was hosted by seven guest speakers, as well as faculty members from UGA. The topics dealt with ranged greatly, from “Practicing the Art of Medicine in the Ancient World” to “When Physicians err…” but the opening lecture I felt to be the most influential. “The Art of Medicine, It’s Always Been about Dialogue” did just that—it opened up an interesting, and certainly controversial, dialogue about how the focus of medicine has changed dramatically from ancient times to modern times. The conclusions reached at the lecture were critical to fixing some fundamental problems with modern medicine.

Photo credit: freeasinfreedom / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Photo credit: freeasinfreedom / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

The lecturer, Richard Panico, M.D., opened his presentation by describing just how poorly America ranks in health and healthcare. In fact, the U.S. is the worst ranked country in the world of those considered “high income” nations, even though we invest more money in healthcare than any of our counterparts. Clearly, this is a problem. But Panico suggested that the issue was not so much a problem with our diagnostics or our resources, but that the approach that American (and most Western) doctors take to medicine is fundamentally wrong, beginning from the training process in medical school.

In antiquity, the ancient Greeks could sum up the purpose of good health in one word- eudaimonia. Eudaimonia referred to human flourishing that resulted from self—reflection and living an active life of virtue. In order to achieve this state, doctors in antiquity focused their efforts not on curing maladies but on healing their patients, physically, spiritually, and emotionally. Doctors had life-long relationships with their patients that inspired hope and perseverance, so that a significant, meaningful relationship developed between patient and physician. Care was customized for each patient, and the patient always remained the one in control of his or her health. This resulted in people who were happy and fulfilled, regardless of their physical situation.

Unfortunately, modern medicine has strayed from this ideal. We now focus on finding cures and treatments for whatever illness patients may have, and most patients report a certain barrier in the relationship between themselves and their doctor, probably in part due to the complexities in the medical system. This sort of relationship is not conducive to healing an individual. Yes, patients might be cured of their illness, but they do not feel like they have been acknowledged as an individual that matters.

The reason that this is the case in modern times is that from the first day of medical school, students are taught to diagnose and treat, not to have a real conversation with their patient. One guest at the lecturer pointed out that on the first day of medical school, students are taken to see a cadaver, and it is not until the end of their medical training that they begin to work with living people. This teaches students to objectify their patients and view them as problems to be solved, instead of as people with lives, and stories, and families.

This was the conclusion reached at the opening lecture of the symposium, and it definitely implies that the way we approach medicine today is inherently flawed and needs to be remedied. Perhaps by taking an approach more parallel to that of the ancients, we can improve our healthcare and our health.