Divided we fail

Dr Iona Heath


In this year’s Harveian Oration, Dr Iona Heath, President of the Royal College of General Practitioners, takes as her theme the importance of cohesion, and the pitfalls of allowing division to occur between doctor and doctor, between the treatment of diseases and the treatment of individuals, and between different members of society. Taking inspiration from philosophers and poets as well as medical colleagues and their patients, Dr Heath examines each of these angles in detail.

As a general practitioner addressing an audience of specialists, she argues for the importance of mutual reliance and trust between these different branches of the profession, given their fundamentally complementary nature – an argument which, she makes clear, is of great relevance to current political debate.   

She then addresses the tendency to impose divisions between mind, body and biography when treating patients. Taking as a concrete example research carried out on adverse childhood experiences, she expands on the limited effectiveness of addressing symptoms and behaviours without considering the patient’s life experience, and warns that rigid diagnostic labelling can be as unhelpful as it is helpful.

Finally, Dr Heath addresses the schisms that occur across society, arguing that the medical profession must resist colluding with the ‘structural violence’ inflicted by poverty and inequality of all kinds. Altogether, her discourse is a moving and erudite argument for promoting cohesion and resisting division across all aspects of medicine.

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Harveian Oration