When Jonathan Weinkle opted to go to medical school instead of becoming a rabbi, he struck an internal bargain.
“I made an agreement with myself that I wasn’t going to be a professional Jew, but I was going to be a Jewish professional,” said the primary care physician and author of the newly released book “Healing People, Not Patients” (Healthy Learning, 2018). “And I was not just going to be a professional who happened to be Jewish; I was going to be a professional Jewishly — ‘Jewish’ was my adverb.”
Jewish values permeate the practice of Weinkle, a Pittsburgh native and physician at the Squirrel Hill Health Center: the notion that everyone is created in the Divine image and deserves to be heard and respected as an individual. In his book, Weinkle offers suggestions on how to form deep connections between patients and doctors, so that patients become more than just “the 3:15 or Room 3307,” he said.
After 10 years of treating people from all walks of life, Weinkle has created a guide that he hopes will help to improve not only the doctor/patient relationship, but other types of relationships as well.
The kippah-wearing physician, who often can be seen leading the congregation in prayer at Congregation Beth Shalom, said he had “three audiences in mind” when writing his book, which is chock full of stories and anecdotes gleaned from his personal experiences.
That first audience, he said, is other physicians.
“Most people still say they go to medical school because of the love of what they are doing and really wanting to help people,” he said. “But a lot of people, especially by the time they get to mid-career, feel really frustrated that there are so many walls preventing them from doing that.”
There is a “hidden curriculum” in medical schools, he said, that thwarts even the best of intentions.
Physicians, Weinkle explained, “might have really wanted to help people, but they learned a sort of behavior of being brusque, or being really speedy, or of turning their attention away from personal connection because it slows down the encounter and gets in the way of them doing what they have on their agenda,” he said.
The second audience for “Healing People,” Weinkle said, is “those who have a strong religious background” and would like to apply their spirituality in a practical way in the world.
Those seeking health care, and who are unsatisfied with the level of personal attention they receive, comprise Weinkle’s third intended audience.
“If you talk to a lot of doctors and find out how frustrated they are practicing, you’ll also find how incredibly frustrated [those seeking treatment] are with the health care system for a variety of reasons,” he said. “All of them say the same thing: They don’t feel like they — the person — are being seen at any point in the encounter, that they are a number or just a customer, that they are something other than a human being when they go to the doctor. And a lot of them are really angry.”
Weinkle’s authorship of “Healing People” was facilitated by a collaboration with the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, a relationship begun more than a dozen years ago. He has served as the JHF’s advisor to its Closure initiative, helping to “infuse ethical and spiritual considerations” into fellowships “which train young professionals to have difficult conversations around end of life,” according to Nancy Zionts, chief operating officer and chief program officer of the JHF.
Weinkle, “is a unique individual — someone who has found a way to balance his talents in the sciences/medicine with his strongly held personal beliefs and philosophy,” Zionts said. “I recall that when Jonathan was in medical school he sent me a piece he had written that expressed the two paths he was considering: physician or rabbi. They were both right for him but there was a choice to be made, career-wise. Jonathan, in a very Solomon-esque way, pursued medicine as a career, but brought to that field his deep and lived beliefs that every human is unique, and every person and patient has value.”
“Healing People,” which can be purchased from healthylearning.com as well as other sellers, is a launching pad for its author’s continued efforts to improve the doctor/patient relationship, Weinkle said. He also has created a website, with a blog, in an effort to “try to deepen the practical impact of what I’m writing about.” The blog includes lessons from the Torah as well as from other sources.
“We are all human beings — created in the image of God, infinitely valuable, having a spark of the Divine in us, however your philosophy or faith tradition phrases that idea,” Weinkle writes on that website, healerswholisten.com. “When two people meet to discuss how one of them can help the other to heal or to stay well, it needs to be a meeting of two human beings forming a covenant to achieve that goal, nothing less.” PJC