Empathetic Medicine: K. Fitz Duffy



We are subjects of health research. We are the means through which medicine expands. Our ailments fuel medical ingenuity. We are the experiment. Without us, medical records would fail to exist.

There is an obvious conflict of interest. We know that human objectification does not necessarily improve the health of the patient who lies dying in the hospital bed. Doctors conduct "experiments" on us for the sake of the entire medical field.

Empathy requires emotional experience. It draws on personal values and peace of mind. Emotionally challenged physicians define empathy in terms of science, the neurological processes coursing through the brain. Herein lies the root of the conflict: we each perceive the medical world in light of our own understanding.

“At medical school, the primary world of science beguiles us with new ways of looking at the body, new languages, and new technologies. Medical students put on new costumes to differentiate themselves from the world of those outside the profession. Other professionals are changed as much, but few of us expect much empathy from lawyers or accountants.”

By not displaying emotional involvement, the isolated physician makes objective decisions concerning patient-care. However, when we choose our doctors, we value their sentimental concern more than their technical proficiency. We rank physicians by their ability to listen. We grant doctors certain undeniable rights given their framed certificates hanging on the wall. That is enough until something goes wrong.

Emotion and empathy exist along a continuum. Too much emotion can be destructive for a patient and for a doctor. Empathy requires experience, as does practicing health care.

Physicians need rhetoric as much as knowledge, and they need personal histories as much as medical journals. We are an experiment so long as we position ourselves as such. We seek empathy and excellence, and often accept less of one for more of the other.

Copright © 2013