Physician Health and Well-Being: Altruism
By John Patterson, MD, MSPH, FAAFP, ABIHM
Founding co-chair LMS Physician Wellness Program
The altruistic example of Albert Schweitzer was my inspiration for becoming a physician.
He obtained a doctorate in 1899, with a dissertation on religious philosophy. He was a musicologist and internationally known concert organist whose paid professional engagements supported his medical training and, later, his African hospital. After receiving his MD degree, he founded his hospital at Lambaréné in French Equatorial Africa in 1913. Schweitzer died in 1965 and was buried at Lambaréné.
The expression “reverence for life” was Albert Schweitzer’s self-described personal philosophy. He believed that no person must ever harm or destroy life unless absolutely necessary. This philosophy was the foundation of his life and work. He believed “the purpose of human life is to serve and to show compassion and the will to help others.” He advised others to “seek always to do some good, somewhere.”
Regarding patient care, he counseled health professionals to support the patient’s inner capacity for healing. Schweitzer wrote- “Each patient carries his own doctor inside him. They come to us not knowing that truth. We are at our best when we give the doctor who resides within each patient a chance to go to work.” Altruistic service was his prescription for life satisfaction and happiness. “I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.”
I have been blessed to work alongside physician colleagues who embody this ethic of altruistic service. I am inspired by the physician stories I have heard in my interviews for our LMS Profile in Compassion series. Nurturing our own professional altruism can sustain us in this dark time in human history. Nurturing altruism among our colleagues can help us all feel connected and supported. Nurturing altruism in our residents and medical students can help them keep alive their altruistic motivation for a life in medicine. I am inspired by the blossoming of altruistic service across society. And I am impressed with the emerging science showing that altruism, compassion, meaning, purpose and values can be cultivated.
After 3 decades as a rural family physician in private practice in Irvine KY (Estill County), my ‘second career’ now is teaching health professionals and their patients how to nurture, grow and sustain the inner resources that make possible an authentic altruistic life of service.
About the Author-
Dr. Patterson is past president of the Kentucky Academy of Family Physicians and is certified in Family Medicine, integrative holistic medicine, mind body medicine, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), yoga therapy and physician coaching. He teaches mind body skills for promoting resilience and managing stress for the UK Health and Wellness Program, Saybrook College of Integrative Medicine and Health Sciences (Pasadena) and the Center for Mind Body Medicine (Washington DC). He operates the Mind Body Studio in Lexington, serving health professionals, people with chronic conditions and the general public.