Beyond the prescription pad: how Siloam taught me the importance of whole person care

Vanderbilt University fourth-year medical student, Scott Hagan, writes of his primary care rotation at Siloam…

“Can I talk to the pastor today?”

This was the first question of one of the first patients I encountered at Siloam. He came to clinic to be evaluated for new symptoms of chest pain, and was very concerned about his health.

Vanderbilt University Medical School student, Scott Hagan, and Dr. Wills during his Primary Care Preceptorship rotation.

In the traditional model of medical care, there is a standard approach to the patient with chest pain. Rule out life threatening etiologies first, and then treat other, less dangerous causes appropriately. Similarly to prior clinical environments in which I have trained, this biomedical approach to care was provided in an efficient manner for our patient (he happened to have heartburn, which improved with the right medication).

However, unlike the standard medical clinic, Siloam regards medical treatment as only one component of a larger system of healing. Our patient was not only seeking medical therapy, but, in an upsetting situation, was asking for our help in his spiritual life. A long-term patient at Siloam, he felt comfortable asking for pastoral care at this visit because the staff has created an environment dedicated to whole person care. Pastor Doug Mann promptly entered the exam room and prayed with the patient, and his spirits were lifted. At this visit, I am certain that we were not merely healing the patient’s chest pain.

Time and time again in my month at Siloam, I found this approach to whole person care put to practice. For the patient with uncontrolled diabetes who needed some new ideas on reducing carbohydrates in his diet, we arranged an appointment with our dietician. A patient struggling with depression admitted that social isolation was significantly contributing to his feelings of sadness. He expressed a desire to become more active in his church, and Pastor Doug helped him to brainstorm ideas to connect with church members throughout the week. The patient who wished to quit smoking met with Rebecca Swift, the Behavioral Health Consultant, not only to form a plan to quit, but also to incorporate behavioral changes to improve his chances of quitting.

The common thread through all of these encounters is that the physician is no longer the only provider improving the health of the patient. Whether it be the pastor, social worker, physical therapist, or pharmacist, a team of providers is now committed to addressing the health needs of the patient. Physical health is no longer the monopolizing goal of the clinic visit. Spiritual, social, and emotional health become priorities.

The staff and volunteers at Siloam have created an innovative environment in which whole person care is taken very seriously. I have emerged from this experience emboldened to bring this model of care into my career as a physician.

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