January 4, 2009

From Detached Concern to Empathy: Humanizing Medical Practice

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Physicians recognize the importance of patients’ emotions in healing yet believe their own emotional responses represent lapses in objectivity. Patients complain that physicians are too detached. Halpern argues that by empathizing with patients, rather than detaching, physicians can best help them. Yet there is no consistent view of what, precisely, clinical empathy involves. This book challenges the traditional assumption that empathy is either purely intellectual or an expression of sympathy. Sympathy, according to many physicians, involves over-identifying with patients, threatening objectivity and respect for patient autonomy.
How can doctors use empathy in diagnosing and treating patients rithout jeopardizing objectivity or projecting their values onto patients? Jodi Halpern, a psychiatrist, medical ethicist and philosopher, develops a groundbreaking account of emotional reasoning as the core of clinical empathy. She argues that empathy cannot be based on detached reasoning because it involves emotional skills, including associating with another person’s images and spontaneously following another’s mood shifts. Yet she argues that these emotional links need not lead to over-identifying with patients or other lapses in rationality but rather can inform medical judgement in ways that detached reasoning cannot. For reflective physicians and discerning patients, this book provides a road map for cultivating empathy in medical practice. For a more general audience, it addresses a basic human question: how can one person’s emotions lead to an understanding of how another person is feeling?

Customer Review: Physician-patient relations reconfigured

This is an outstanding treatise of the philosophical and ethical engagement between physician and patient. Working to move beyond standard medical school training approach of “detached concern”, physician & philosopher Jodi Halpern argues for a progressive empathic stance, reasoned carefully through Kant and Descartes, enriched by psychoanalytic and psychological frameworks, but always grounded in her own experience with patients. This is a careful thinker and academic scholar at work here who has scoured the relevant literature and developed her own trenchant strategies for improving medical care. Designed for practicing physicians but provocative enough to appeal to philosophers and bioethicists. With up-to-date index linking research in medical anthropology, nursing, neuropsych and psychotherapy, as well as analytic mind/body philosophy. This is an author to watch out for.

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