Loneliness in medicine and relational ethics: A phenomenology of the physician-patient relationship

Clinical Ethics 19 (2):171-181 (2024)
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Loneliness in medicine is a serious problem not just for patients, for whom illness is intrinsically isolating, but also for physicians in the contemporary condition of medicine. We explore this problem by investigating the ideal physician-patient relationship, whose analogy with friendship has held enduring normative appeal. Drawing from Talbot Brewer and Nir Ben-Moshe, we argue that this appeal lies in a dynamic form of companionship incompatible with static models of friendship-like physician-patient relationships: a mutual refinement of embodied virtue that draws both persons together. The ideal physician-patient relationship has a dialectical character that fosters each member's improvement of phenomenologically recognizing and embodying moral virtues. A key component of this dynamic is a commitment to the common goal of the patient's health, realized through joint interactivities and conversations over time. The physician's presence to the patient's suffering—understood best as an alienating phenomenological condition for the patient—orients and discloses possibilities for virtuous caregiving by structuring the meanings of the goals, conversations, and joint narrative constitutive of their relationship. Presence to suffering, paradoxically, is perhaps an important prerequisite for this dynamic partnership. These activities dialectically build an interpretive horizon of understanding through which moral goods and character refinement—in and for the other—may become revealed for both persons in their shared being-in-the-world. This analysis of suffering, mood, and revealing of (possible) moral goods has implications for addressing the modern problem of loneliness for patients and physicians, who are increasingly inhibited from building flourishing relationships with each other.

Author's Profile

John Han
Washington University in St. Louis


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