That old proverb "Physician, heal thyself" has been given new meaning by a report that finds mistakes by the medical profession may cause as many as 98,000 deaths each year. That would make medical errors the fifth leading cause of fatalities in the United States.
Loss of human life by any means should trigger a response of alertness, compassion, and prevention. Vehicle and airplane safety, for instance, has made great strides in recent decades. Fewer toxic substances pollute our environment.
But the real message from this startling estimate by the Institute of Medicine is that physicians and other medical professionals need help in living up to a commitment to "do no harm" in healing the sick.
Fortunately, the report makes specific recommendations - such as not relying on a doctor's handwriting for prescriptions - and it calls for reducing medical errors by at least 50 percent in five years. Its findings will also be useful in the debate over patients' rights as well as health-care reform.
At root, the nation's interest in the healing of physical suffering requires a renewed trust between physician and patient. That means better training, communication, and a renewed humility to admit and deal with errors rather than hide them.
Patients have enough to do in dealing with their fear of disease without fearing those trying to cure them.
Trust between healer and patient is only one necessary quality for those in the profession. Medical errors can also be reduced by striving to show more compassion toward patients, whether that's expressed in soothing words or just taking care to connect the right hose for the oxygen feed.
Doctors can implicitly express a high respect for patients. And they can view their work as pure service to a person's well-being. Calmness and thoughtfulness will win the faith of a patient. Such an approach will lift a patient's thinking above the immediate suffering and promote healing.
As medicine becomes complex and health care more bureaucratic, such qualities of thought are needed more than ever.
The founder of this newspaper, Mary Baker Eddy, once wrote: "Is it skilful or scientific surgery to take no heed of mental conditions and to treat the patient as if she were so much mindless matter, and as if matter were the only factor to be consulted?"
The medical profession, like the airline or trucking industry, can easily improve its safety. Perhaps many physicians, medical interns, nurses, and others work too many hours and should, in the spirit of that old proverb, heal their own weariness and lessen the demands on themselves.
Beyond that, this report serves as an alert for all of us to work harder at bringing more harmony, comfort, and sympathy to those seeking healing.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society