The real painting that speaks a thousand words, inspires me, and reminds me why I went into medicine

The Doctor exhibited 1891 Sir Luke Fildes 1843-1927 Presented by Sir Henry Tate 1894

A few weeks ago, I wrote a brief piece about a chart that speaks a thousand words. It’s basically quite an obnoxious graphic that shows the proliferation of administrators in healthcare, compared to physicians, over the last few decades. I’d encourage anyone who wants to understand where US healthcare has gone wrong, to simply look at this chart (click here to see it).

At the opposite end of the pleasant visual spectrum, I’d like to discuss a painting that totally inspires me every time I look at it. It’s a very famous painting that many of you may have already seen before. You can view it above. And before reading on, really look at it for a moment.

The painting was commissioned by Sir Henry Tate (founder of the Tate Gallery) in London in 1890. Sir Tate gave Luke Fildes, a well-known artist at the time, license to paint a picture of his own choosing. Fildes decided that he would paint a picture from a moment in his life that had greatly affected him. In 1877, Filde’s first son had tragically died in infancy. The doctor who took care of his son was a dedicated and compassionate physician, who held attentive vigil over his ailing child. The character and disposition of the doctor left a deep impression on Fildes, at a time when he was beside himself with anxiety and emotion. This impression remained with him for the rest of his life. The simple devotion of the doctor is depicted so touchingly in the scene.

From the moment it went on display, the painting became a public sensation. This was Victorian England, there was no television or mass media, and large swathes of the population couldn’t even read. It was so popular that it toured Britain, garnering attention wherever it went. There was one report of somebody being so overwhelmed by the painting, that they died on the spot. It was then reprinted in America, where it also sold over a million copies.

The painting has since become an icon for one simple reason: It symbolizes the good, caring, humble doctor—in complete service to an ailing and vulnerable patient. To me, it also means something else in these tumultuous times in healthcare. It serves to remind me of the human connection that lies at the core of all good healthcare. In our current system, it’s sadly the patient who so often gets lost in everything. We are overwhelmed by bureaucracy and administration. The typical physician now spends the vast majority of their day performing mind-numbing bureaucratic tasks—typing and clicking away on a computer. Perhaps the painting today would even be called “The Provider”—if corporate medicine and the world of regulators had anything to do with it—and would undoubtedly show the provider staring at a computer screen with concern, instead of the actual patient.

A while back, I wrote an article about an “old-school physician” I encountered, who made me reflect on how medicine has changed (you can read the article here). That’s the type of physician I had in mind when I first applied to do medicine. I was also privileged enough to be taught in medical school by physicians like that.

The Doctor represents the ideal that we should not only all be aspiring to, but also the ideal that will bring us the most career satisfaction. At a time when there’s an epidemic of physician burnout and job dissatisfaction—this 19th century painting should give us all pause for thought. Within that vision is symbolized an eternal truth. One that our patients are crying out for every single day. A good, caring doctor who connects with them and gives them gentle and honest attention.


Suneel Dhand is a physician, author and speaker. He is co-founder at DocsDox and founder at DocSpeak Communications. Learn more about him here.

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Twitter: @SuneelDhand

  1. January 23, 2018
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