• The Problem of Empathy: Medicine and the Humanities

    Rebecca Garden (see profile)
    Literature and medicine
    Item Type:
    medical humanities
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    Health care institutions and medical educators assert that empathy is essential to optimum patient care, yet medical education and the practice of medicine often neglect empathy in favor of biomedical approaches to disease and injury. This essay discusses the development in medical literature of the concept of "clinical empathy"—which attempts to reorient a biomedical, disease-centered approach to treating illness by accounting for an increasing fluency within the interpersonal relations between physician and patient—and examines arguments for supplementing medical training with the study of literature and the practice of reflective writing as a means of developing empathy in physicians. In order to interrogate the problems as well as the possibilities of clinical empathy, I turn to theories of sympathy produced in the eighteenth century, when innovations in medical technology and knowledge had only begun to create separate categories that would ultimately untwine the body from mind and culture. The eighteenth century was also a time when philosophy and literature, rather than being compartmentalized from medicine as distinct disciplines, informed medical understandings before medicine became specialized as a "science." A critical approach to the theory and literature of the eighteenth century can help to formulate a productive critique of clinical empathy in contemporary medicine and to suggest possibilities for a reconfigured and strengthened understanding of empathy within the larger social context of institutions, systems, and access to care.
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    7 years ago
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