Moving Us Closer To Osler
A Miller Coulson Academy of Clinical Excellence Initiative

Einstein’s Relativity And Patient Care


Conversations about the passing of time can stimulate meaningful reflections during patient visits.  

March 14 was Albert Einstein’s birthday. He was born in Ulm, Germany, in 1879 and, despite popular commentary, was actually a very good student. At age 26 he published a series of four papers that each had foundational impacts in physics. Though his Nobel Prize was awarded for his work on quantum physics and its effect on light, he might be best known for his famous work on understanding time and space that led to the theory of relativity. His theory described that time and space existed relative to each other, and depending on one observer’s motion compared to another’s, the same simultaneous event can appear to occur at different times. 

I’ve been thinking about this applied to humans, based off of conversations with patients. The first occurred a number of years ago with a patient I cared for for over 20 years, Mr. L, who was 80 at the time.  I asked him routinely how he was doing, and this visit he said that he was slowing down. I had a hard time accepting this, knowing him as a robust man, and told him so. He reminded me that he was no longer that 60, but 80. That moment made me realize I’d been caring for him over 20 years, but I didn’t feel 20 years older. An experience of relativity. 

Another instance of relatively occurred when an 81-year-old patient shared his concerns about his 60-year-old son who’d been injured in an accident. He commented that his son wasn’t a young man, he was 60. This seemed astounding to my patient as it made him realize he was 81.   

Time and space have fascinating relative relationships, in science and in our care for patients. Maybe talking about the impact of chronological time on patient’s perceptions of their vitality could stimulate meaningful reflection. 








This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not necessarily represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.