“Violence” in medicine: necessary and unnecessary, intentional and unintentional

by Johanna Shapiro

We are more used to thinking of medicine in relation to the ways that it alleviates the effects of violence. Yet an important thread in the academic literature acknowledges that medicine can also be responsible for perpetuating violence, albeit unintentionally, against the very individuals it intends to help. In this essay, I discuss definitions of violence, emphasizing the importance of understanding the term not only as a physical perpetration but as an act of power of one person over another. I next explore the paradox of a healing profession that is permeated with violence sometimes necessary, often unintentional, and almost always unrecognized. Identifying the construct of “physician arrogance” as contributory to violence, I go on to identify different manifestations of violence in a medical context, including violence to the body; structural violence; metaphoric violence; and the practice of speaking to or about patients (and others in the healthcare system in ways that minimize or disrespect their full humanity. I further suggest possible explanations for the origins of these kinds of violence in physicians, including the fear of suffering and death in relation to vicarious trauma and the consequent concept of “killing suffering”; as well as why patients might be willing to accept such violence directed toward them. I conclude with brief recommendations for attending to root causes of violence, both within societal and institutional structures, and within ourselves, offering the model of the wounded healer.

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