The issue of how to incorporate the individual's first‐hand experience of illness into broader medical understanding is a major question in medical theory and practice. In a philosophical context, phenomenology, with its emphasis on the subject's perception of phenomena as the basis for knowledge and its questioning of naturalism, seems an obvious candidate for addressing these issues. This is a review of current phenomenological approaches to medicine, looking at what has motivated this philosophical approach, the main problems it faces and suggesting how it might become a useful philosophical tool within medicine, with its own individual, but interrelated, contribution to make to current medical debates. After the general background, there is a brief summary of phenomenological ideas and their current usage in a medical context. Next is a critique of four key claims within current phenomenological medical works, concerning both the role phenomenology plays and the supposedly clear divide between phenomenology and other approaches. There are significant problems within these claims, largely because they overlook the complexity of the questions they consider. Finally, there is some more in‐depth examination of phenomenology itself and the true complexity of phenomenological debate concerning subjectivity. The aim is to show that it will be both more productive and truer to phenomenology itself, if we use phenomenology as a philosophical method for explicating and gaining deeper understanding of complex and fundamental problems, which are central to medicine, rather than as providing simple, but flawed solutions.