, Volume 17, Issue 3, pp 189-207

Engagement and suffering in responsible caregiving: On overcoming maleficience in health care

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Abstract

The thesis of this article is that engagement and suffering are essential aspects of responsible caregiving. The sense of medical responsibility engendered by engaged caregiving is referred to herein as ‘clinical phronesis,’ i.e. practical wisdom in health care, or, simply, practical health care wisdom. The idea of clinical phronesis calls to mind a relational or communicative sense of medical responsibility which can best be understood as a kind of ‘virtue ethics,’ yet one that is informed by the exigencies of moral discourse and dialogue, as well as by the technical rigors of formal reasoning. The ideal of clinical phronesis is not (necessarily) contrary to the more common understandings of medical responsibility as either beneficence or patient autonomy — except, of course, when these notions are taken in their “disengaged” form (reflecting the malaise of “modern medicine”). Clinical phronesis, which gives rise to a deeper, broader, and richer, yet also to a more complex, sense than these other notions connote, holds the promise both of expanding, correcting, and perhaps completing what it currently means to be a fully responsible health care provider. In engaged caregiving, providers appropriately suffer with the patient, that is, they suffer the exigencies of the patient's affliction (though not his or her actual loss) by consenting to its inescapability. In disengaged caregiving — that ruse Katz has described as the ‘silent world of doctor and patient’ — provides may deny or refuse any ‘given’ connection with the patient, especially the inevitability of the patient's affliction and suffering (and, by parody of reasoning, the inevitability of their own. When, however, responsibility is construed qualitatively as an evaluative feature of medical rationality, rather than quantitatively as a form of ‘calculative reasoning’ only, responsibility can be viewed more broadly as not only a matter of science and will, but of language and communication as well — in particular, as the task of responsibly narrating and interpreting the patient's story of illness. In summary, the question is not whether phronesis can ‘save the life of medical ethics’ — only responsible humans can do that! Instead, the question should be whether phronesis, as an ethical requirement of health care delivery, can ‘prevent the death of medical ethics.’