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Medicine’s History Offers Perspective on Today’s Practice


In his intern year, Jordan Messler, MD, SFHM, would walk by Grady Hospital, the venerable Atlanta institution staffed by the Emory University and Morehouse schools of medicine physicians, with little thought of how the building dates to 1892. Then, one day with professor Ruth Parker, MD, he noticed a picture of a century-old hospital in front of the building. The conversation that followed led the Emory student, and later faculty member, down a path into the past.

“I was just missing history right in front of my eyes, and missing the stories, as all my colleagues were,” says Dr. Messler, medical director at Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater, Fla.

Not anymore.

Dr. Messler is a hospitalist historian. At HM12 in April in San Diego, he led a session titled “The History of Hospitals,” a workshop that took attendees on a guided tour of medicine, from the Egyptian vizier Imhotep to William Osler, often called the father of modern medicine. It took detours at Galen, Christian hospitals, Islamic practices, and medieval medicine. The story was told through paintings, drawings, and hours of Dr. Messler’s “midnight to 2 a.m.” research.

“The humanities is a lost piece at times,” he says. “It certainly can help shape what we do.

Sometimes by looking backward we know that’s the best way to look forward..

—Jordan Messler, MD, SFHM, medical director, Morton Plant Hospital, Clearwater, Fla.

“[It] helps us give a different perspective, makes us think about things in a different way, and, hopefully, can add even to the day-to-day work that people still do on the ground. It’s not going to help you treat heart failure in the research sense, but it should help you treat it in how you face your patient and how you face your facility.” (Click here to listen to more of Dr. Messler's interview with The Hospitalist)

Hospitalist J. Scott Dalston, MD, of Amarillo Hospitalist Services in northwest Texas enjoyed the break from the didactic and lecture approaches taken in nearly all of the annual meeting’s other breakout sessions. Perhaps more important, he felt reminded of what made him want to be a physician in the first place.

“Before medical school, you get caught up in the higher reasons for doing medicine, the calling,” he says. “Then, when you get down and dirty on the front lines, you kind of forget about that. This, in a way, reminds you of that.”

Such was the point of the debut “potpourri” track, according to Brendon Shank, SHM’s associate vice president of communications. The track also featured such nonclinical sessions as “Using Art to Improve Your Clinical Observation Skills” and “Professionalism in the Digital Age” in an attempt to round out the meeting.

Dr. Messler says he hopes his dabble into medicine’s beginnings inspires physicians to wrap history into their present practices. He encourages teaching hospitalists to weave historical nuggets into clinical rounds. He suggests residents ask older patients what their hospital experience used to be like. And he pushes all physicians to take the time to invest in their institution’s past.

“Taking a step back, looking at the history of where we are, going through the footsteps of those people who gone before us, gives us a better appreciation for what we do day to day,” he says. “Sometimes by looking backward we know that’s the best way to look forward.”

Richard Quinn is a freelance writer based in New Jersey.

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