How to Treat a Person: Learning Patient Care from Patch Adams

“Patch Adams,” the 1998 comedy/drama featuring Robin Williams, tells the story of a man, Hunter “Patch” Adams, who makes waves at Virginia Medical University when he realizes that the school’s idea of what constitutes patient care is vastly different from his own. Wanting to serve those without insurance, Patch opens a clinic in his home. It is there that he finds his purpose: to connect with his patients and offer them hope. 

However, Patch comes under fire when the powers-that-be find out that he is operating his home clinic without a license. Ultimately, Patch’s medical approach — treating “indifference” instead of just disease — proves valuable in its simplicity. The medical board decides to allow Patch to complete his degree, and from there, he continues to serve his patients with humor and hope. 

So, what can we learn from a Patch Adams approach to our patients?

In a world where filling out the EHC consumes more time than getting to know a patient, Patch Adams offers us perspective. Why did we get into this field? What do our patients truly need from us? And what is quality care?

According to Patch Adams, it starts with treating a person:

“You treat a disease, you win, you lose. You treat a person, I guarantee you, you’ll win, no matter what the outcome.”

So, what does this mean? How can we treat a person?

  • Empathy: the key to providing quality care is tapping into our ability to empathize. When patients feel that they are heard, understood, and validated — not just about their physical ailments, but about the challenges of trying to overcome them — you build their trust.
  • Connection: We can only truly connect with our patients when they know that they can trust us. This connection can allow us “in,” giving us a chance to learn more about a patient, thereby learning more about how we can help them.

In a clinical setting, it’s easy to forget about treating the person rather than the malady. But quality care comes from allowing personal connection to work hand-and-hand with medical knowledge. We already knew that this was true, but somewhere along the line, some of us may have forgotten.

As you care for your patients, let Patch’s approach inspire you to focus on the full picture. What really matters isn’t the “what” but rather the “who.”