Robert Pearl

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Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay


Pearl, a plastic surgeon and former CEO of a large medical group, writes powerfully and poignantly about the major role of physician culture - the customs and rituals, traits and beliefs of doctors. This culture is entrenched through years of medical training. He decides that physician culture "can be both a virtuous force and an equally destructive influence" (p70).

Some of that culture is readily on display: attire, tools of the trade, unique medical terminology, insensitive humor, frequent handwashing. Positive aspects of physician culture include self-confidence, integrity, compassion, and selflessness. Negative elements are ingrained to keep emotions and dread at bay: detachment, callousness, denial. This culture of medicine must navigate dual interests - healing (the mission of medicine) and profit (income, status, prestige).

Pearl suggests an evolutionary pathway for physician culture that he dubs "the five C's of Cultural Change" - confront, commit, connect, collaborate, contribute. He tackles issues of sexism, racism, and elitism in American healthcare. He explores the suffering of physicians and their need to seek forgiveness - often secretly and even in cases of perceived "failure" when everything possible was done correctly. His discussion is filled with agonizing, frustrating, and loving stories about patients, family members, and colleagues (including physician suicide).

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