The Importance of Humanism vs. Heroism in Healthcare

By | August 5, 2021

A hero is understood to be a person who performs an exceptional feat, putting others in front of oneself. The ideal of heroism represents the convention that an individual can accomplish more than seems possible. The heroic narrative extols three traits: individual skill, willingness to sacrifice, and stoicism in the face of physical and emotional hardship.

The culture of medicine embodies all these traits, and during COVID the heroic persona has illustrated how the public has viewed all clinicians. However, do these attributes of individualism, sacrifice, and stoic endurance undermine the systemic transformation needed in healthcare? Especially because we continuously foster the concept of team-based care and the need for resilience. Additionally, is continued sacrifice good for humanity, and sustainable in the field of healthcare?

Clinicians do what they do as a component of their calling to serve. Furthermore, their vocation is caring for others and arguably never just a job. Hence, clinicians, and those with a drive to help others, have a tremendous ambition to deliver the best care possible. However, these behaviors represent humanism rather than heroism.

Taking this one step further, individualism does not allow for the improvements we seek. Frankly we are only as good as the systems we create. No longer is an individual able to deliver all that is needed when we view health as a much broader discussion. With the rapid progression of a more holistic approach to clinical care, technology and science, an individual can’t know and comprehend everything fully which is why healthcare changes need to be global in reach.

Stoicism leads to burnout. It creates an unrealistic view of oneself and hides emotional exhaustion and stress. Not only do these factors contribute to burnout, but they can also cause detriment to others. On the surface, sacrifice sounds lofty, but does it lead to better care? Can I be the best I can be if I am constantly viewing my activities as a sacrifice? What is the role I play within my family? Should the next generation suffer because I believe I am a hero?

As we all are striving for what is best for our communities and the individuals we treat, let us reframe what we do and how we do it within the context of humanism. Let me elevate myself to being the best team player I can be and promote the talents and skills of my colleagues. Give me the strength to realize my faults and limitations. Allow me to view all who serve as part of a collective group of heroes. Allow me to be mindful that heroism is a concept, not a way of being. A hero lives in isolation. So, let us continue to foster the ideals of humanism and avoid the pitfalls of heroism.