A Doctor’s Language

If it is true what the phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty says, then, “man is at home in language”.

What are the implications for the experiences of patients, when a doctor’s mother tongue speaks from a two thousand year long tradition of medical descriptions since Hippocrates founded Western medicine.

The reason I have begun such questioning is from having recently, yet again, been crossing borders from one country to the next at a rate of three or four a week. Initially, on leaving England and settling into a new environment, I slowly submerge into the country’s dialect, picking up the essential lingo to carry me through everyday transactions. Before long, I retrieve certain words from my new observed language into my own thinking language. I learn that words are a necessary conduct for communicating and expressing a culture’s concepts, of which, if remained ignorant of, may be neglected and left to waste.

As my expeditions continue, I drag the chain of my new vocabulary through to the neighbouring countries, like a train, with its carriages connecting by a common link but still a separate container. In relation to language, can thought transgress from the nature of one language into another? Of course, before long, the connections to a country, to a culture, to a language, to a concept solidify and become a part of myself. But what about the language of medicine?

A consultation between a doctor and a patient is a fleeting exchange of words. The landscape of life becomes coloured with patterns that were not previously part of one’s perception. These patterns are symptoms, and their descriptions are formed from a unique use of language. The patient must translate the contours of their experience of the world, as if they themselves have carved out their own country amongst a world of millions of lives. The language of every narrative is unique. But this is what the doctor must hear, and perceive, and feel, in order to receive the patient’s dialogue.

Similarly, the patient too must converse whilst confronted with unfamiliar territory. The patient is likely to have already entered, and is currently undergoing, a trespass along a different territory of where their body is in relation to the juxtaposition between life and death. The doctor will be attempting to discover and explain a diagnosis, and treatment, and will match symptom to disease, and disease to medication.

The patient’s narrative and the doctor’s narrative may not necessarily run smoothly alongside each other. In a similar way to an ensuing conversation between persons of whom are strangers to each other’s languages collide and clash against the myriad of unfamiliar sounds and pronouncinations, the patient and doctor also struggle.

Our contemporary medicine is often criticised for the objectification of humans and the medicalisation of life and death, living and dying.

The key component of language is time. Over time, familiarity is gained.

Yet, time also causes a person’s narrative to suffer.

A person becomes a patient over time.

Over this time, the person has developed their experience of their illness into their narrative of their life as a whole.

In the consultation between a doctor and a patient, the body has to be extracted from this narrative.

Hopes and fears for life and for death do not suffice as part of diagnosis.

The doctor’s empowerment comes from a language of the actual. Whereas a patient may have a flowing commentary throughout their experience as a subject in medical practice that refers to what is other than the actual. What lies outside the body is the language of the patient. What lies inside the body is the language of the doctor.

In light of the increasing language of medicine, perhaps to describe molecular discoveries about the body or observe in different ways from further development of scientific technology the behaviour of diseases, the knowledge of the doctor shapes new concepts, which are then released into their language and dialogue in their relationship with the patient.

This is the nature of contemporary medicine.

Clearly, the goal of the doctor remains to save lives. The fact that the language of medicine is in unchartered territory and a distant land far from the way a person references their own narrative is perhaps one of the by-products of a medicine that has simply become “too good”.

Nevertheless, medicine is developing a language, to provide definition to the phenomenology of our body, in sickness and in health. At times, there will be bridges to cross through the harsh terrain of a strangeness. At other times, these bridges will support the commonalities that can allow for the connections of our human narrative.

In this sense, the relationship between a doctor and a patient will also survive through both sickness and health.