The Six Blind Men and the Elephant

The Six Blind Men and the Elephant

Anees B. Chagpar, MD, MPH, MBA, MSc, MA, FACS, FRCS, FASCO

Sep 27, 2014
I love the story of the six blind men and the elephant, each of whom felt a different part of the animal and came to his own conclusion about its nature. “Though each was partly in the right,” Saxe noted, “… all were in the wrong!” As I think about clinical care, research, and life in general, the lesson of the parable seems to resonate.

Especially in cancer care, a multidisciplinary approach is key. Each of us manages our own aspect of a patient’s care – whether through surgery, medical oncology, radiation oncology, or other specialties – and while we know our part well, how it connects with the others is critical to how we manage our patients. I think about our multidisciplinary tumor board discussions, and how nuances of particular pieces of information that affect one specialty have a domino effect on changing the management schemes of others. In research, we are particularly good at “disput[ing] loud and long, each in [our] own opinion, exceeding stiff and strong.” At the end of the day, however, we each bring a different piece to the complex puzzle of how cancer works. Such cordial confrontation is often constructive, lending varying viewpoints that ultimately help everyone to understand the totality of a complicated subject. 

However, the poem also highlights the problem with perception, especially when people hold to their opinions so strongly as not to consider alternative world views. Whatever the subject matter – from patients, to pathways, to politics – things are not often straightforward. And when things are complicated, taking multiple vantage points might allow us to see more than what we initially did. So, I leave you with another one of my favorites… an illustration that the picture is often richer when you can see multiple facets of the same work.


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