Using Literature and the Arts to Develop Empathy in Medical Students

Johanna Shapiro, PhD

Medicine has had a mixed history where empathy is concerned. Although there is a tradition stretching from Hippocrates through to the current epoch of sympathy and compassion as defining qualities of medical professionalism, modern medicine has been dominated by a reductive, rationalist approach to clinical practice (Halpern, 2003). The modernist framing of professionalism engendered by this perspective presumes that impersonality. neutrality and detachment are needed to achieve objective medical care that does not favour one patient over another. In this view, the metaphor of medicine as science predominates, and the rationalist attributes of the successful scientist are transferred wholesale to the physician. Less often stated but also influential to this line of thinking is the assumption that allowing oneself feeling for patients can be emotionally overwhelming and leads to exhaustion and burn-out.

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