Week 4 of Lent: Reflection No. 5 – Our professional identity – founded on following the humility of Jesus and our mission to be ministers of Gospel compassion for our patients
Catholic health care professionals straddle two worlds – one is the world of evidence-based patient care. In this respect, evidence is often based on quantitative research, where tests of statistical significance are used to determine if the research outcomes meet statistical criteria for determining the validity of the result.
The other world is the world of our vocation and mission as Catholics called to be health care professionals in today’s world. In this reflection, we will focus on the interactions between these two worlds, to give the reader a sense of perspective for integrating their professional roles with their faith journey in life.
Before continuing, a few words on context is in order.
We live in a secular environment. This secular environment dominates much of the training and education provided for health care professionals going through university and postgraduate training. After graduation, the practitioner is often faced with issues related to the professional boundary if she or he attempts to care in an evidence-based manner. The professional boundary, when it works well, acts as a deterrence to boundary violations and unethical practices that result in harm to patients. Another positive of the professional boundary is that it reminds the practitioner of the limits of one’s professional role (in terms of skills, knowledge or personal limitations).
In this respect, it is important that we have a proper understanding of the evidence base in patient care in order to gain a balanced understanding of the professional boundary. Evidence reminds us that our professional practice is one of valuing the validity and reliability of our care for patients. This is to recognise the indispensable role of scientific knowledge and having a good evidence base for caring for patients. Yet, the validity of our care for patients does not mean that our care stops at the limits of the available evidence. Maybe the research has not been done for the precise problem and diagnosis facing the patient before us. Maybe the available research evidence is insufficient on which to base a clinical decision as to the management of the patient before us. In these instances, we are still called to walk the walk of humility in our mission to care with Gospel compassion for our patients.
The limits of evidence-based care can be seen in instances where we are caring for the dying patient. While palliative care enables good symptom control for patients, there is more to care of the dying patient than just symptom control. Good palliative care is a means to an end – to minimise the risk that the dying process would become an experience of agony for the patient. Yet, the palliative care professional is more than just a symptomatologist. Good palliative care also smooths the way for the patient to be at peace with the dying process, to live in hope in the face of death, and to look forward to joining the communion of saints after death, where life is changed, not ended.
When we look at patient care, then, we are primarily caring for our neighbour in need in a Gospel sense. At the same time, as health care professionals, we also have a duty of care towards the patient, whose care demands the best available evidence in order that care is valid. The patient and the neighbour are one and the same person. In this respect, validity of care is always a means to an end – that of responding with Gospel compassion towards our patient who is also our neighbour in need. In this way, it is pertinent to remember the words of Mt:40: “Whoever you did this for one of the least of my brothers, you did it to me.”
Let us, then, see and listen to Jesus speaking to us in, and through our patients, as He guides us in our ministry of Gospel compassion towards our neighbour in need.
Dr Michael Tan is a retired GP in formation for the Permanent Diaconate in the Diocese of Parramatta. He has just been appointed to the Executive of the Catholic Medical Association in NSW