What place does kindness have in medicine?

By Katherine Cheung.

Asking whether kindness should play a role in medicine, and if our physicians should be asked to be kind, looks like a redundant question – it seems as though any person should answer yes. However, Dr. Edwin Jesudason interestingly points out that in choosing to be kind, we might also have to choose to whom we should be kind, and to what extent. Kindness, he argues, could lead to harm and wrongdoing due to its discretionary nature.

Answering whether this is true encourages us to turn to and examine what we mean by “kindness”, and what this concept encompasses. In comparison with other concepts such as empathy or compassion, kindness remains relatively understudied in the philosophical and bioethical literature. However, there is some empirical evidence as to what role kindness, empathy, and compassion may play in medicine. For example, patients that perceive their doctors to be empathic have better outcomes, whilst simple acts of kindness can help diffuse negative emotions associated with complicated matters such as cancer diagnoses. A kind and supportive relationship can reduce stress, promote better immune functioning and better mental health. Moreover, partially responding to recent concerns about physician burn-out and stress – particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic – a few preliminary studies have been conducted on loving-kindness meditation for physicians in order to promote resilience and stress reduction. Whilst these empirical studies do not outline what kindness is per se (and the issues that accompany it), it gestures towards its potential significance for healthcare in general.

As Dr. Jesudason has done, examining kindness more closely prompts us to question both what ethical dilemmas it can bring, but we should also endeavour to see what benefits it may have. In many places, healthcare has become increasingly sanitised and bureaucratic – a direction which has not been welcomed by many. Examining kindness, and other fundamentally human elements, can help us to improve our practice of medicine. Drawing from the work of Dr. Lisa Bortolotti and Kathleen Murphy Hollies, I suggested that curiosity could be a valuable virtue in physician-patient encounters. Others, such as honesty and humility, may also play an indispensable role.

Finally, it may be interesting to examine the fact that many other elements of medicine are discretionary in nature too. For example, whether a physician trusts a patient’s account of their symptoms is highly subjective. A physician may choose to disbelieve a patient’s account because of their gender, race, or some other irrelevant factor – having trust placed in one’s perspective is oftentimes a privilege in medicine that is only extended to some patients. A broader discussion of the environment that fosters these discrepancies is needed.


Paper title: A Role for Kindness and Curiosity in Healthcare

Author: Katherine Cheung

Affiliations: Department of Bioethics, New York University

Competing interests: None declared.

Twitter: @Katherine_Chg

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