The dangerous practice of empathy

Click to access emss-52147.pdf

An important role for the medical humanities is to stimulate imaginative insight into the
lives and experience of others through literature and other art forms. The idea is that such
exposure will develop “empathy” as an attribute useful in clinical practice. Those interested
in medical humanities have promoted the importance of this concept, and the “practice of
empathy” has become an icon of the growing medical humanities movement in the USA and
the UK. US physicians have even gone so far as to adopt empathy as one of the accredited
“skills” required by the American Council for Graduate Education. However, another crucial
role of the medical humanities is to provide a critical watching brief on the way in which
medicine can highjack complex ideas, confining and defining them in its own terms, and
changing their meaning and impact. I would suggest that this has happened with the notion
of empathy and that it is worthwhile examining the concept and discussing whether it makes
sense to regard it as a clinical skill at all. I am not sure that empathy, in the sense of
emotional identification, is possible. I also query the way that empathy has become an object
of measurement among some physicians.

Similar to pathological altruism.
It inhibits the logical conduct required of the role. Imagine a surgeon getting the shakes because he fears the patient will scar.

1. Be civil. 2. Be logical or fair. 3. Do not bore me.

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