Alam Anjum: Emotional Warfare: From Doctors to Patients


Whilst watching the film, “The Doctor”, released in the year 1991, I was struck by the same old question in my mind, whose answer I have been looking for several years that; to what extent does a doctor need to be attached or detached from their patients as persons?

“The Doctor” depicts a surgeon who was gifted with extraordinary skills in the Operating Theatre but very detached in nature; he deals his patients with a high level of skill but fails to attend to their emotional welfare.  In parallel, his own family life was suffering because of his nature, and, suddenly he received a diagnosis that he had a malignant tumour in his throat, of which subsequent surgery would risk losing his voice or kill him.

Now Jack McKee (William Hurt) had become a patient and he himself was needing to endure all the clinical examinations and procedures that define a person as a patient. He was finding the experience of being a patient very uncomfortable as he had never experienced feeling a sense of suffering or close to his mortality.  Furthermore, there was an element of supremacy of being great surgeon still attached to his personality, which always led to arguments with staff members—even his own surgeon—in the hospital. However, slowly he tried to adjust himself to his new environment and gained insight about his perceptions and attitudes he had previously used towards his patients. During this transformation, a fellow patient of his, who was suffering from a brain tumour, helped to facilitate his reflection on his past actions.

Now, the notion of realization is very arguable. As always, one realizes the moral weight of their actions during the times when they become questionable and require reflection. In this case, the doctor realized that his past actions were not good practices for the treatment of persons experiencing illness and he decided to change them. Not only did he change those habits, which he realized were inappropriate, he also tried to educate to his trainee surgeons.

For example, Jack McKee (William Hurt) practiced an exercise whereby the trainees were allotted a disease and asked to act as a patient for three days; remaining in a hospital bed, wearing gowns, and eating the hospital meals. The purpose was to empathize with what patients endure and feel when they are suffering from illness during their stay in the hospital.

At this moment, I began to conduct my own reflections, following the observation of Jack McKee (William Hurt) changing his habits and attempting to educate his students about how empathize with the feelings of patients, namely;

Do doctors need to be emotionally attached and empathize with their patient’s sufferings?

How valid is the argument that doctors are unable to empathize with numerous patients and constraints within their professional practices creates restrictions regarding time and what is possible to achieve?

Does a doctor sense of empathy reflect closely to the way that he/she would expect and desire to be treated should they also have to suffer through the same traumatic situations?

My purpose is not to conclude on the basis of my understandings and feelings; however, further exploration of doctor’s attitudes towards the role of empathy in medicine, such as the reflection gained from “The Doctor”, offer rich ways in understanding the doctor-patient relationship, and ultimately, to promote the importance of a good therapeutic alliance based on awareness and insight into their patient’s narratives.

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