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Former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, reflects on the power of our shared humanity

Bridget Balch , Staff Writer
November 18, 2020

The recipient of the 2020 Vilcek-Gold Award for Humanism in Healthcare shares his insights on how breaking down silos and embracing commonality can build stronger, healthier communities.

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Former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, recipient of the 2020 Vilcek-Gold Award for Humanism in Healthcare, speaks at Learn Serve Lead 2020.
Former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, recipient of the 2020 Vilcek-Gold Award for Humanism in Healthcare, speaks at Learn Serve Lead 2020.
Photo by Laura Zelaya

Former United States Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, traces his interest in the power of human connection to his parents.

Murthy’s father grew up in dire poverty in a small farming village in India, often going without enough to eat. Against all odds, both of his parents attended graduate school and immigrated first to England, then to Canada, and later to the United States, where they started a medical practice.

It was through their deep commitment to the well-being of their patients that Murthy learned the power of authentic human connection.

“That’s what keeps us whole,” Murthy said during a session at Learn Serve Lead 2020: The Virtual Experience on Nov. 17. “That’s what keeps us fulfilled and healthy. … It’s what’s guided me throughout my life.” 

During the session, which centered around Murthy’s recent book, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, Murthy was also honored as the 2020 recipient of the Vilcek-Gold Award for Humanism in Healthcare, which recognizes a foreign-born individual who has had an extraordinary impact through their professional achievements. The session was facilitated by Mona Hanna-Attisha, MD, MPH, founder and director of the Michigan State University-Hurley Children’s Hospital Pediatric Public Health Initiative and the 2019 recipient of the Vilcek-Gold Award.

A common humanity

Murthy recalled a story from his childhood when his parents woke him and his sister up in the middle of the night and strapped them into the car to drive to a trailer park. His parents had just learned that one of their patients had passed away from cancer, and they wanted to be sure his wife wasn’t grieving alone.

He remembers seeing his mother, dressed in a traditional Indian sari, wrapping her arms around the crying woman, whose family had lived in the United States for generations. In that moment, their commonalities outweighed their differences, he thought.

It’s important, especially now as both a pandemic and a tense political climate threaten to pull people further apart, that everyone treat each other as fellow humans.

“We all feel better when we’re giving and receiving love. We all feel worse when we’re living in fear,” Murthy said. “These are the things that actually unite us as human beings.”

But it can be particularly challenging to put this into action, he added, as modern life makes it easy for people to create social silos — only listening to and interacting with people who think the same way that they do.

“How can we create opportunities for people in our country to actually get to know one another?” Murthy said. “You build a relationship first. … Snarky posts on Twitter never change anyone’s mind.”

Restructuring health systems around the humanity of the patient — and the clinicians

The issues that plague Americans in general — loneliness, emotional pain, and burnout — are even more pronounced among physicians. This worries Murthy.

He emphasized the benefits for medical students and physicians of creating daily rituals that are grounding, even if they just think about what they are grateful for while they brush their teeth.

“Those anchors are very important for us,” he said.

But the impetus for creating a better environment for health care workers doesn’t lie solely with the individuals; it must start at the top.

“We’ve had a culture that tells us somehow that struggle is a sign of weakness,” Murthy said. “We have to create a culture where it is actually OK to be vulnerable.”

He added that, to create real change, institutional leadership must reexamine their commitment to structures that place more emphasis on billing, correcting clinical deficiencies, and procuring funding than on improving patient care.

“When was the last time you heard of somebody being promoted to tenure at your medical school because they were amazing at patient care and they build great relationships?” Murthy said. “The message that we send the newest members of our profession is that that stuff doesn’t matter — that what matters most is your publishing, your bringing in funding, that’s what drives change in medicine. And the truth is that’s not why most people got into this profession. We got in here to be a part of people’s lives, to spend time with patients, and to help people heal.”

Improving the health of patients will also have to go beyond treating their ailments. 

For clinicians, it can be disheartening to have a patient whose health and well-being is impacted by something that the clinician has little control over – such as access to healthy food, housing, or other social determinants of health, Murthy said.

That’s why health systems should recognize the need to create community partnerships and give doctors the time and bandwidth to be engaged in making changes to the factors that impact their patients’ health.

“We have to do this, not only for the well-being of our patients, but we have to do it to sustain our profession, because we can’t endure more and more years of doctors burning out at the rates that they are,” Murthy said. “We have an opportunity to reflect, reevaluate, and change direction — to build the kind of culture in medicine that we need and that our trainees, in particular, truly deserve.”

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