Category Archives: Psychoanalysis

Injections and the Personal Touch

“Fear of the needle is usually acquired in childhood.  The psychic trauma to millions of the population produced in this way undoubtedly creates obstacles to good doctor-patient relationships, essential diagnostic procedures, and even life-saving therapy.”  Janet Travell, “Factors Affecting Pain of Injection” (1955)[1]

It was during the 1950s that the administration of hypodermic injections became a fraught enterprise and a topic of medical discussion.  With World War II over and American psychoanalysis suffusing postwar culture, including the cultures of medicine and psychiatry, it is unsurprising that physicians should look with new eyes at needle penetration and the fears it provoked.

In the nineteenth century, it had been all about pain relieved, sometimes miraculously, by injection of opioids.  Alongside the pain relieved, the pain of the injection was quite tolerable, even minor, a mere afterthought.  But in the mid-twentieth century pain per se took a back seat.  It was no longer about the painful condition that prompted injection.  Nor, really, was it about the pain of injection per se.  Psychodynamic thinking trumped both kinds of pain.  Increasingly, the issue before physicians, especially pediatricians, was about two things:  the anxiety attendant to injection pain and the lasting psychological damage that was all too often the legacy of needle pain.  Elimination of injection pain mattered, certainly, but it became the means to a psychological end.  Relieve the pain, they reasoned, and you eliminate the apprehension that exacerbates the pain and leaves deep psychic scars.

And so physicians were put on notice.  They were enjoined to experiment with numbing agents, coolant sprays, and various counterirritants to minimize the pain that children (and a good many adults) dreaded.  They were urged to keep their needles sharp and their patients’ skin surfaces dry.  Coolant sprays and antiseptic solutions that left a wet film, after all, could be carried into the skin as irritants.  For the muscular pain attendant to deeper injections, still stronger anesthetics, such as procaine, might be called for.  Physicians were also encouraged to reduce injection pain through new technologies, to use, for example, hyposprays and spring-loaded presto injectors.  Injection “technique” was a topic of discussion, especially for intramuscular injections of new wonder drugs such as streptomycin.  To be sure, new technologies and refined technique often failed to eliminate injection pain, especially when a large volume of solution was injected.  But, then again, pain relief was only a secondary goal. The point of the recommendations was primarily psychological, viz., to eliminate “the psychological reaction to piercing the skin.”[2]  It was anticipation of pain and the fear it engendered that jeopardized the doctor-patient relationship.

Psychoanalysts themselves, far removed from the everyday concerns of pediatricians, family physicians, and internists, had little to say on the topic.  They were content to call attention now and again to needle symbolism – invariably phallic in nature – in dreams and childhood memories.  In 1954, the child analyst Selma Fraiberg recalled “The theory of a two-and-a-half-year-old girl who developed a serious neurosis following an observation of coitus.  The child maintained that ‘the man made the hole,’ that the penis was forcibly thrust into the woman’s body like the hypodermic needle which had been thrust into her by the doctor when she was ill.”   Pity this two and a half year old.

Inferences about male sadism and castration anxiety were integral to this train of thought.  In 50s-era psychoanalysis, needle injection could symbolize not only “painful penetration,” but also the sadistic mutilation of a little girl by a male doctor.[3]  One wants to say that such strained psychoanalytic renderings are long dead and buried, but the fact is they still find their way into the literature from time to time, usually in the context of dream interpretations.  Here is one from 1994:

Recently Ms. K mentioned a dream in which she was diabetic and had little packets of desiccated insulin which were also like condoms.  All she needed now was a hypodermic syringe and a needle.  I pointed out the sexual nature of the dream with its theme of penetration; she then remembered that in the dream a woman friend had lifted her skirt and Ms. K had ‘whammed the needle right in’.[4]

Psychoanalytic interpretive priorities change over time, whether or not in therapeutically helpful ways being a perennial subject of debate.  By the 1990s, there was belated recognition that children’s needle phobias really didn’t call for analytic unraveling; they derived from the simple developmental fact that “children are exposed to hypodermic needles prior to their ability to understand what is going on,” and, as such, were more amenable to behavioral intervention than psychoanalytic treatment.  In the hospital setting, in particular, children needed simple strategies to reduce fear, not psychoanalytic interpretations.[5]

In 1950s medicine, psychoanalysis was at its best when its influence was subtle and indirect.  Samuel Sterns’s thoughtful consideration of the “emotional aspects” of treating patients with diabetes, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1953, is one such example.  Sterns worked out of the Abraham Rudy Diabetic Clinic of Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital, and he expressed indebtedness to the psychiatrist-psychoanalyst Grete Bibring and other members of her department for “many discussions” on the topic.

For most diabetics, of course, daily injections, self-administered whenever possible, were an absolute necessity.  And resistance to the injections, then as now, undercut treatment and resulted in poor glycemic control.[6]  How then to cope with the diabetic’s resistance to the needle, especially when “the injection of insulin is sometimes associated with a degree of anxiety, revulsion or fear that cannot be explained by the slight amount of pain involved.”[7]

Psychoanalysis provided a framework for overcoming the resistance.  It was not a matter of “simple reassurance” about insulin injections, Sterns observed, but – and it is Bibring’s voice we hear –

Recognition that apparently trivial and unfounded complaints about insulin injections may be based on deeply rooted anxiety for which the patient finds superficial rationalizations enables the physician to be more realistic and tolerant, and more successful in dealing with the problem.

Realism, tolerance, acceptance – this was the psychoanalytic path to overcoming the problem.  Physicians had to accept that diabetics’ anxiety about injections arose from “individual personalities,” and that each diabetic had his or her own adaptively necessary defenses.  Exhortation, criticism, direct confrontation – these responses had to be jettisoned on behalf of the kindness and understanding that would lead to a “positive interpersonal relation.”  This entailed an understanding of the patient’s transference to the physician:

It is particularly apparent that most of the reactions of juvenile diabetic patients to discipline, authoritativeness or criticism by the physician are really identical with their reactions to similar situations involving their parents.

And it included a  like-minded willingness to wrestle with the countertransference as an obstacle to treatment:

Even the occasional display of an untherapeutic attitude by the physician is enough to interfere with the development of a relation that will enable him to obtain maximal cooperation from the patient.  If the physician cultivates awareness of his own reactions to a difficult patient, he will be less easily drawn into retaliation or other negative behavior.[8]

The point of the analytic approach was to lay the groundwork for a “positive interpersonal relation” that would enlist the patient’s cooperation, and “not through anxiety or fear of the disease or the physician, but rather through the wish to be well and to gain the physician’s approval.”[9]  Sympathetic acceptance of the patient’s fears, of the defenses against those fears, of the life circumstances that led to the defenses – this was the ticket to the kind of positive transference relationship that the physician could use to his and the patient’s advantage.

_______________

Sterns’s paper of 1953 remains helpful to this day; it exemplifies the application of general psychoanalytic concepts to real-world medical problems that, as I suggested in the final chapter of Psychoanalysis at the Margins (2009), may breathe new life into a beleaguered profession.  The reasonableness of Sterns’s recommendations stands in contrast to the insular irrelevance of  George Moran’s “Psychoanalytic Treatment of Diabetic Children” (1984), where poor glycemic control among children becomes a “metaphorical expression[s] of psychological disturbance” — framed in terms of “entrenched defensive structures” and “drive derivatives” – that calls for psychoanalytic treatment, sometimes via “prolonged stays” of up to several months in pediatric wards.[10]  And yet, there is something missing from Sterns’s commentary.  Like other writers of his time, he was concerned lest needle anxiety become an obstacle to a good doctor-patient relationship.  Cultivate the relationship through sympathetic insight into the problem, he reasoned, and  the obstacle would diminish, perhaps even disappear.  What he ignored – indeed, what all these hospital- and clinic-based writers of the time ignored – is the manner in which a preexisting “good doctor-patient relationship” can defuse needle anxiety in the first place.

Nineteen fifty three, the year Sterns’s paper was published, was also the year my father, William Stepansky, opened his general practice at 16 East First Avenue, Trappe, Pennsylvania.  My father, as I have written, was a Compleat Physician in whom wide-ranging procedural competence commingled with a psychiatric temperament and deeply caring sensibility.  In the world of 1950s general practice, his office was, as Winnicott would say, a holding environment.  His patients loved him and relied on him to provide care.  If injections were part of the care, then ipso facto, they were caring interventions, whatever the momentary discomfort they entailed.

The forty years of my father’s practice spanned the first 40 years of my life, and, from the time I was around 13, we engaged in ongoing conversations about his patients and work.  Never do I recall his remarking on a case of needle anxiety, which is not to deny that any number of patients, child and adult, became anxious when injection time arrived.  My point is that he contained and managed their anxiety so that it never became clinically significant or worthy of mention.  At the opposite end of the spectrum, I know of elderly patients who welcomed him into their homes several times a week for injections – sometimes just vitamin B-12 shots – that amplified the human support he provided.

Before administering an injection, my father firmly but gently grasped the underside of the patient’s upper arm, and the patient felt held, often in just those ways in which he or she needed holding.  When one’s personal physician gives an injection, it may become, in some manner and to some extent, a personal injection.  And personal injections never hurt as much as injections impersonally given.  This simple truth gets lost in the contemporary literature that treats needle phobia as a psychiatric condition in need of focal treatment.   A primary care physician remarked to me recently that she relieved a patient’s severe anxiety about getting an injection simply by putting the injection on hold and sitting down and talking to the patient for five minutes.  In effect, she reframed the meaning of the injection by absorbing it into a newly established human connection. Would that all our doctors would sit down with us for five minutes and talk to us as friendly human beings, as fellow sufferers, before getting down to procedural business.

I myself am more fortunate than most.  For me the very anticipation of an injection has a positive valence.  It conjures up the sights and smells and tactile sensations of my father’s treatment room.  Now in my 60s, I still have in my nostrils the bracing scent of the alcohol he used to clean the injection site, and I still feel the firm, paternal grasp of his hand on my arm at the point of injection.  I once remarked to a physician that she could never administer an injection that would bother me,  because at the moment of penetration, her hand became my father’s.

Psychoanalysts who adopt the perspective of object relations theory speak of “transitional objects,” those special inanimate things that, especially in early life, stand in for our parents and help calm us in their absence.  Such objects become vested with soothing human properties; this is what imparts their “transitional” status.  In a paper of 2002, the analyst Julie Miller ventured the improbable view, based on a single case, that the needle of the heroin addict represents a “transitional object” that fosters a maternal connection the addict never experienced in early life.[11]  For me, I suppose, the needle is also a transitional object, albeit one that intersects with actual lived experience of a far more inspiriting nature.  To wit, when I receive an injection it is always with my father’s hand, life-affirming and healing.  It is the needle that attests to a paternal connection realized, in early life and in life thereafter.  It is an injection that stirs loving memories of my father’s medicine.   So how much can it hurt?

_______________

[1] J. Travell, “Factors affecting pain of injection,” JAMA, 58:368-371, 1955, at p. 368.

[2] J. Travell, “Factors affecting pain of injection,” op. cit.; L. C. Miller, “Control of pain of injection,” Bull Parenteral Drug A., 7:9-13,1953; E. P. MacKenzie, “Painless injections in pediatric practice,” J. Pediatr., 44:421, 1954; O. F. Thomas & G. Penrhyn Jones, “A note on injection pain with streptomycin,” Tubercle, 36:157-59, 1955; F. H. J. Figge & V. M. Gelhaus, “A new injector designed to minimize pain and apprehension of parenteral therapy,” JAMA, 160:1308-10, 1956.  There were also needle innovations in the realm of intravenous therapy, e.g., L. I. Gardner & J. T. Murphy, “New needle for pediatric scalp vein infusions,” Amer. J. Dis. Child., 80:303-04, 1950.

[3] S. Fraiberg, “A critical neurosis in a two-and-a-half-year girl,” Psychoanal. Study Child, 7:173-215, 1952, at p. 180; S. Fraiberg, “Tales of the discovery of the secret treasure,” Psychoanal. Study Child, 9:218-41, 1954, at p. 236.

[4] I. D. Buckingham, “The effect of hysterectomy on the subjective experience of orgasm,” J. Clin. Psychoanal., 3:607-12, 1994.

[5] D. Weston, “Response,” Int. J. Psychoanal., 78:1218-19, 1997, at p. 1219; C. Troupp, “Clinical commentary,” J. Child Psychother., 36:179-82, 2010.

[6] There is ample documentation of needle anxiety among present-day diabetics, e.g., A. Zambanini, et al., “Injection related anxiety in insulin-treated diabetes,” Diabetes Res. Clin. Prac., 46:239-46, 1999 and A. B. Hauber, et al., “Risking health to avoid injections: preferences of Canadians with type 2 diabetes,” Diabetes Care, 28:2243-45, 2005.

[7]S. Stearns, “Some emotional aspects of the treatment of diabetes mellitus and the role of the physician,” NEJM, 249:471-76, 1953, at p. 473.

[8] Ibid., p. 474.

[9] Ibid.

[10]P. E. Stepansky, Psychoanalysis at the Margins (NY: Other Press, 2009), pp. 287-313; G. S. Moran, “Psychoanalytic treatment of diabetic children,” Psychoanal. Study Child, 39:407-447, at pp. 413, 440. 

[11]J. Miller, “Heroin addiction: the needle as transitional object,” J. Amer. Acad. Psychoanal., 30:293-304, 20.

Copyright © 2014 by Paul E. Stepansky.  All rights reserved.

You Touch Me

Etymologically, the word “touch” (from the old French touchier) is a semantic cornucopia.  In English, of course, common usage embraces dual meanings. We make tactile contact, and we receive emotional contact.  The latter meaning is usually passively rendered, in the manner of receiving a gift:  we are the beneficiary of someone else’s emotional offering; we are “touched” by a person’s words, gestures, or deeds.  The duality extends to the realm of healthcare:  as patients, we are touched physically by our physicians (or other providers) but, if we are fortunate, we are also touched emotionally by their kindness, concern, empathy, even love.  Here the two kinds of touching are complementary.  We are examined (and often experience a measure of  contact comfort through the touch)  and then comforted by the physician’s sympathetic words; we are touched by the human contact that follows from physical touch.

For nurses, caregiving as touching and being touched has been central to professional identity.  The foundations of nursing as a modern “profession” were laid down on the battlefields of Crimea and the American South during the mid-nineteenth century.  Crimean and Civil War nurses could not “treat” their patients, but they “touched” them literally and figuratively and, in so doing, individualized their suffering.  Their nursing touch was amplified by the caring impulse of mothers:  they listened to soldiers’ stories, sought to keep them warm, and especially sought to nourish them, struggling to pry their food parcels away from corrupt medical officers.  In the process, they formulated a professional ethos that, in privileging patient care over hospital protocol, was anathema to the professionalism associated with male medical authority.[1]

This alternative, comfort-based vision of professionalism is one reason, among others, that nursing literature is more nuanced than medical literature in exploring the phenomenology and dynamic meanings of touch. It has fallen to nursing researchers to isolate and appraise the tactile components of touch (such as duration, location, intensity, and sensation) and also to differentiate between comforting touch and the touch associated with procedures, i.e., procedural touch.[2]  Buttressing the  phenomenological viewpoint of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty with recent neurophysiologic research, Catherine Green has recently argued that nurse-patient interaction, with its “heavily tactile component” promotes an experiential oneness:  it “plunges the nurse into the patient situation in a direct and immediate way.”  To touch, she reminds us, is simultaneously to be touched, so that the nurse’s soothing touch not only promotes deep empathy of the patient’s plight but actually “constitutes” the nurse herself (or himself) in her (or his) very personhood.[3]  Other nurse researchers question the intersubjective convergence presumed by Green’s rendering.  A survey of hospitalized patients, for example, documents that some patients are ambivalent toward the nurse’s touch, since for them it signifies not only care but also control.[4]

After World War II, the rise of sophisticated monitoring equipment in hospitals pulled American nursing away from hands-on, one-on-one bedside nursing.  By the 1960s, hospital nurses, no less than physicians, were “proceduralists” who relied on cardiac and vital function monitors, electronic fetal monitors, and the like for “data” on the patients they “nursed.”  They monitored the monitors and, for educators critical of this turn of events, especially psychiatric nurses, had become little more than monitors themselves.

As the historian Margarete Sandelowski has elaborated, this transformation of hospital nursing had both an upside and a downside.  It elevated the status of nurses by aligning them with postwar scientific medicine in all its burgeoning technological power.  Nurses, the skilled human monitors of the machines, were key players on whom hospitalized patients and their physicians increasingly relied.  In the hospital setting, they became “middle managers,”[5] with command authority of their wards. Those nurses with specialized skills – especially those who worked in the newly established intensive care units (ICUs) – were at the top of the nursing pecking order.  They were the most medical of the nurses, trained to diagnose and treat life-threating conditions as they arose.  As such, they achieved a new collegial status with physicians, the limits of which were all too clear.  Yes, physicians relied on nurses (and often learned from them) in the use of the new machines, but they simultaneously demeaned the “practical knowledge” that nurses acquired in the service of advanced technology – as if educating and reassuring patients about the purpose of the machines; maintaining them (and recommending improvements to manufacturers); and utilizing them without medical supervision was something any minimally intelligent person could do.

A special predicament of nursing concerns the impact of monitoring and proceduralism on a profession whose historical raison d’être was hands-on caring, first on the battlefields and then at the bedside.  Self-evidently, nurses with advanced procedural skills had to relinquish that most traditional of nursing functions: the laying on of hands.  Consider hospital-based nurses who worked full-time as x-ray technicians and microscopists in the early 1900s; who, beginning in the 1930s, monitored  polio patients in their iron lungs; who, in the decades following World War II, performed venipuncture as full-time IV therapists; and who, beginning in the 1960s, diagnosed and treated life-threatening conditions in the machine-driven ICUs.  Obstetrical nurses who, beginning in the late 1960s, relied on electronic fetal monitors to gauge the progress of labor and who, on detecting “nonreassuring” fetal heart rate patterns, initiated oxygen therapy or terminated oxytocin infusions – these “modern” OB nurses were worlds removed from their pre-1940s forebears, who monitored labor with their hands and eyes in the patient’s own home.  Nursing educators grew concerned that, with the growing reliance on electronic metering, nurses were “literally and figuratively ‘losing touch’ with laboring women.”[6]

Nor did the dilemma for nurses end with the pull of machine-age monitoring away from what nursing educators long construed as “true nursing.”  It pertained equally to the compensatory efforts to restore the personal touch to nursing in the 1970s and 80s.  This is because “true nursing,” as understood by Florence Nightingale and several generations of twentieth-century nursing educators, fell back on gendered touching; to nurse truly and well was to deploy the feminine touch of caring women.  If “losing touch” through technology was the price paid for elevated status in the hospital, then restoring touch brought with it the re-gendering (and hence devaluing) of the nurse’s charge:  she was, when all was said and done, the womanly helpmate of physicians, those masculine (or masculinized) gatekeepers of scientific medicine in all its curative glory.[7]  And yet, in the matter of touching and being touched, gender takes us only so far.  What then of male nurses, who insist on the synergy of masculinity, caring, and touch?[8]  Is their touch ipso facto deficient in some essential ingredient of true nursing?

As soon as we enter the realm of soothing touch, with its attendant psychological meanings, we encounter a number of binaries.  Each pole of a binary is a construct, an example of what the sociologist Max Weber termed an “ideal type.”  The question-promoting, if not questionable, nature of these constructs only increases their heuristic value.  They give us something to think about.  So we have “feminine” and “masculine” touch, as noted above.  But we also have the nurse’s touch and, at the other pole, the physician’s touch.  In the gendered world of many feminist writers, this binary replicates the gender divide, despite the historical and contemporary reality of women physicians and male nurses.

But the binary extends  to women physicians themselves.  In their efforts to gain entry to the world of male American medicine,  female medical pioneers adopted two radically different strategies.  At one pole, we have the touch-comfort-sympathy approach of Elizabeth Blackwell, which assigned women their own  feminized domain of practice (child care, nonsurgical obstetrics and gynecology, womanly counseling on matters of sanitation, hygiene, and prevention).  At the opposite pole we have the research-oriented, scientific approach of Mary Putnam Jacobi and Marie Zakrezewska, which held that  women physicians must be physicians in any and all respects.  Only with state-of-the-art training in the medical science (e.g., bacteriology) and treatments (e.g., ovariotomy) of the day, they held, would women docs achieve what they deserved:  full parity with  medical men.  The binary of female physicians as extenders of women’s “natural sphere” versus female physicians as physicians pure and simple runs through the second half of the nineteenth century.[9]

Within medicine, we can perhaps speak of the generalist touch (analogous to the generalist gaze[10]) that can be juxtaposed with the specialist touch.  Medical technology, especially tools that amplify the physician’s senses –  invite another binary.  There is the pole of direct touch and the pole of touch mediated by instrumentation.  This binary spans the divide between “direct auscultation,” with the physician’s ear on the patient’s chest, and “mediate auscultation,” with the stethoscope linking (and, for some nineteenth-century patients, coming between) the physician’s ear and the patient’s chest).

Broader than any of the foregoing is the binary that pushes beyond the framework of comfort care per se.  Consider it a meta-binary.  At one pole is therapeutic touch (TT), whose premise of a preternatural human energy field subject to disturbance and hands-on (or hands-near) remediation is nothing if not a recrudescence of Anton Mesmer’s “vital magnetism” of the late 18th century, with the TT therapist (usually a nurse) taking the role of Mesmer’s magnétiseur.[11]  At the opposite pole is transgressive touch.  This is the pole of boundary violations typically, though not invariably, associated with touch-free specialties such as psychiatry and psychoanalysis.[12]  Transgressive touch signifies inappropriately intimate, usually sexualized, touch that violates the boundaries of professional caring and results in the patient’s dis-comfort and dis-ease, sometimes to the point of leaving the patient traumatized, i.e., “touched in the head.”  It also signifies the psychological impairment of the therapist, who, in another etymologically just sense of the term, may be “touched,” given his or her gross inability to maintain a professional treatment relationship.

These binaries invite further scrutiny, less on account of the extremes than of the shades of grayness that span each  continuum.  Exploration of touch is a messy business, a hands-on business, a psycho-physical business.  It may yield important insights but perhaps only fitfully, in the manner of – to invoke a meaning that arose in the early nineteenth century – touch and go.


[1] See J. E. Schultz, “The inhospitable hospital: gender and professionalism in civil war medicine,” Signs, 17:363-392, 1992.

[2]  S. J. Weiss, “The language of touch,” Nurs. Res., 28:76-80, 1979; S. J. Weiss, “Psychophysiological effects of caregiver touch on incidence of cardiac dysrhythmia,” Heart and Lung, 15:494-505, 1986; C. A. Estabrooks, “Touch in nursing practice: a historical perspective: 1900-1920,” J. Nursing Hist., 2:33-49, 1987; J. S. Mulaik, et al., “Patients’ perceptions of nurses’ use of touch,” W. J. Nursing Res., 13:306-323, 1991.

[3] C. Green, “Philosophic reflections on the meaning of touch in nurse-patient interactions,” Nurs. Phil., 14:242-253, 2013; quoted at pp. 250-251.

[4] Mulaik, “Patient’s perceptions of nurses’ use of touch,” pp. 317-318.

[5] “Middle managers” is the characterization of the nursing historian Barbara Melosh, in “Doctors, patients, and ‘big nurse’: work and gender in the postwar hospital,” in E. C. Lagemann, ed., Nursing History: New Perspective, New Possibilities (NY: Teachers College Press, 1983), pp. 157-179.  

[6] M. Sandelowski, Devices and Desires:  Gender, Technology, and American Nursing (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), p. 166.

[7] On the revalorization of the feminine in nursing in the Nursing Theory Movement of the 70s and 80s, see Sandelowski, Devices and Desires, pp. 131-134.

[8] See R. L. Pullen, et al., “Men, caring, & touch,”  Men in Nursing, 7:14-17, 2009.

[9] The work of Regina Morantz-Sanchez is especially illuminating of this binary and the major protagonists at the two poles.  See R. Morantz, “Feminism, professionalism, and germs: the thought of Mary Putnam Jacobi and Elizabeth Blackwell,” American Quarterly, 34:459-478, 1982, with a slightly revised version of the paper in R. Morantz-Sanchez, Sympathy and Science: Women Physicians in American Medicine (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000 [1985]), pp. 184-202.

[10] I have written about the “generalist gaze” in P. E. Stepansky, The Last Family Doctor:  Remembering my Father’s Medicine (Montclair, NJ: Keynote Books, 2011), pp. 62-66, and more recently in P. E. Stepansky, “When generalist values meant general practice: family medicine in post-WWII America” (precirculated paper, American Association for the History of Medicine, Atlanta, GA, May 16-19, 2013).

[11] Therapeutic touch was devised and promulgated by the nursing educator Delores Krieger in publications of the 1970s and 80s, e.g., “Therapeutic touch:  the imprimatur of nursing,” Amer. J. Nursing, 75:785-787, 1975; The Therapeutic Touch (NY: Prentice Hall, 1985); and Living the Therapeutic Touch (NY:  Dodd, Mead, 1987).  I share the viewpoint of Therese Meehan, who sees the technique as a risk-free nursing intervention capable of potentiating a powerful placebo effect (T. C. Meehan, “Therapeutic touch as a nursing intervention,” J. Advanced Nursing, 1:117-125, 1998).

[12] For a fairly recent examination of transgressive touch and its ramifications, see G. O. Gabbard & E. P. Lester, Boundary Violations in Psychoanalysis (Arlington, VA: Amer. Psychiatric Pub., 2002). 

Copyright © 2013 by Paul E. Stepansky.  All rights reserved.

Pathways to Empathy?

Dipping into the vast[1] literature on clinical empathy, one quickly discerns the dominant storyline.  Everyone agrees that empathy, while hard to define,  hovers around a kind of physicianly caring that incorporates emotional connection with patients.  The connection conveys sensitivity to the patient’s life circumstances and personal psychology, and gains expression in the physician’s ability to encourage the patient to express emotion, especially as it pertains to his medical condition.  Then the physician draws on her own experience of similar emotions in communicating an “accurate” empathic understanding of how the patient feels and why he should feel that way.

Almost all commentators agree that empathy, whatever it is, is a good thing indeed.  They cite empirical research linking it to more efficient and effective care, to patients who are more trusting of their doctors, more compliant in following instructions, and more satisfied with the outcome of treatment. Patients want doctors who give them not only the appointment time but the time of day, and when they feel better understood, they simply feel better.  Furthermore, doctors who are empathic doctor better.  They learn more about their patients and, as a result, are better able to fulfill  core medical tasks such as history-taking, diagnosis, and treatment.  Given this medley of benefits, commentators can’t help but lament the well-documented decline of empathy, viz., of humanistic, patient-centered care-giving, among medical students and residents, and to proffer new strategies for reviving it.  So they present readers with a host of training exercises, coding schemes, and curricular innovations to help medical students retain the empathy with which they began their medical studies, and also to help overworked, often jaded, residents refind the ability to empathize that has succumbed to medical school and the dehumanizing rigors of specialty training.[2]

It is at this point that empathy narratives fork off in different directions.  Empathy researchers typically opt for a cognitive-behavioral approach to teaching empathy, arguing that if medical educators cannot teach students and residents to feel with their patients, they can at least train them to discern what their patients feel, to encourage the expression of these feelings, and then to respond in ways that affirm and legitimize the feelings.  This interactional approach leads to the creation of various models, step-wise approaches, rating scales, language games (per Wittgenstein), and coding systems, all aimed at cultivating a cognitive skill set that, from the patient’s perspective, gives the impression of a caring and emotionally attuned provider.  Duly trained in the art of eliciting and affirming emotions, the physician becomes capable of what one theorist terms “skilled interpersonal performances” with patients.  Seen thusly, empathic connection becomes a “clinical procedure” that takes the patient’s improved psychobiological functioning as its outcome.[3]

The cognitive-behavioral approach is an exercise in what researchers term “communication skills training.”  It typically parses doctor-patient communication into micro-interactions that can be identified and coded as “empathic opportunities.”  Teaching students and residents the art of “accurate empathy” amounts to alerting them to these opportunities and showing how their responses (or nonresponses) either exploit or miss them.  One research team, in a fit of linguistic inventiveness, tagged the physician’s failure to invite the patient to elaborate an emotional state (often followed by a physician-initiated change of subject), an “empathic opportunity terminator.”  Learning to pick up on subtle, often nonverbal, clues of underlying feeling states and gently prodding patients to own up to emotions is integral to the process. Thus, when patients don’t actually express emotion but instead provide a clue that may point to an emotion, the physician’s failure to travel down the yellow brick road of masked emotion becomes, more creatively still, a “potential empathic opportunity terminator.”  Whether protocol-driven questioning about feeling states leads patients to feel truly understood or simply the object of artificial, even artifactual, behaviors has yet to be systematically addressed.  Medical researchers ignore the fact that empathy, however “accurate,” is not effective unless it is perceived as such by patients.[4]

Medical educators of a humanistic bent take a different fork in the road to empathic care giving.  Shying away from protocols, models, scales, and coding schemes, they embrace a more holistic vision of empathy as growing out of medical training leavened by character-broadening exposure to the humanities. The foremost early proponent of this viewpoint was Howard Spiro, whose article of 1992, “What is Empathy and Can It Be Taught?” set the tone and tenor for an emerging literature on the role of the humanities in medical training.  William Zinn echoed his message a year later: “The humanities deserve to be a part of medical education because they not only provide ethical guidance and improve cognitive skills, but also enrich life experiences in the otherwise cloistered environment of medical school.”  The epitome of this viewpoint, also published in 1993, was the volume edited by Spiro and his colleagues, Empathy and the Practice of Medicine.  Over the past 15 years, writers in this tradition have added to the list of nonmedical activities conducive to clinical empathy.  According to Halpern, they include “meditation, sharing stories with colleagues, writing about doctoring, reading books, and watching films conveying emotional complexity.”  Shapiro and her colleagues single out courses in medicine and literature, attendance at theatrical performances, and assignments in “reflective writing” as specific empathy-enhancers.[5]

Spiro practiced and taught gastroenterology in New Haven, home of Yale University School of Medicine and the prestigious Western New England Psychoanalytic Institute. One quickly discerns the psychoanalytic influence on his approach.  The humanistic grounding he sought for students and residents partakes of this influence, whether in the kind of literature he wanted students to read (i.e., “the new genus of pathography”) or in his approach to history taking (“The clues that make the physician aware at the first meeting that a patient is depressed require free-floating attention, as psychoanalysts call it.”).

A variant of the “humanist” approach accepts the cognitivist assumption that empathy is a teachable skill but veers away from communications theory and cognitive psychology to delineate it.  Instead, it looks to the world of psychotherapy, especially the psychoanalytic self psychology of Heinz Kohut.  These articles, most of which were published in the 90s, are replete with psychoanalytic conceptualizations and phraseology; they occasionally reference Kohut himself but more frequently cite work by psychoanalytic self psychologists  Michael Basch and Dan Buie, the psychiatrist Leston Havens, and the psychiatrist-anthropologist Arthur Kleinman.

Authors following a psychoanalytic path to empathy assign specific tasks to students, residents, and clinicians, but the tasks are more typically associated with the opening phase of long-term psychotherapy.  Clinicians are enjoined to begin in a patiently receptive mode, avoiding the “pitfalls of premature empathy” and realizing that patients “seldom verbalize their emotions directly and spontaneously,” instead offering up clues that must be probed and unraveled.  Empathic receptiveness helps render more understandable and tolerable “the motivation behind patient behavior that would otherwise seem alien or inappropriate.”  Through “self-monitoring and self-analyzing,” the empathic clinician learns to rule out endogenous causes for heightened emotional states and can “begin to understand its source in the patient.”  In difficult confrontations with angry or upset patients, physicians, no less than psychoanalysts, must cultivate “an ongoing practice of engaged curiosity” that includes systematic self-reflection.  Like analysts, that is, they must learn to analyze the countertransference for clues about their patients’ feelings.[6]

There is a mildly overwrought quality to the medical appropriation of psychoanalysis, as if an analytic sensibility per se – absent lengthy analytic training – can be superadded to the mindset of task-oriented, often harried, clinicians and thereupon imbue them with heightened “empathic accuracy.” Given the tensions among the gently analytic vision of empathic care, the claims of patient autonomy, and the managerial, data-oriented, and evidence-based structure of contemporary practice, one welcomes as a breath of fresh air the recent demurrer of Anna Smajdor and her colleagues.  Patients, they suggest, really don’t want empathic doctors who enter their worlds and feel their pain, only doctors who communicate clearly and treat them with courtesy and a modicum of respect.[7]

And so the empathy narratives move on.  Over the past decade, neuroscientists have invoked empathy as an example of what they term “interpersonal neurobiology,” i.e., a neurobiological response to social interaction that activates specific neural networks, probably those involving the mirror neuronal system.  It may be that empathy derives from an “embodied simulation mechanism” that is neurally grounded and operates outside of consciousness.[8]  In all, this growing body of research may alter the framework within which empathy training exercises are understood. Rather than pressing forward, however, I want to pause and look backward.  Long before the term “empathy” was used, much less operationalized for educational purposes, there were deeply caring, patient-centered physicians.  Was there anything in their training that pushed them in the direction of empathic caregiving?   I propose that nineteenth-century medicine had its own pathway to empathy, and I will turn to it in the next posting.


[1] R. Pedersen’s review article, “Empirical research on empathy in medicine – a critical review,” Pat. Educ Counseling, 76:307-322, 2009 covers 237 research articles.

[2] F. W. Platt & V. F. Keller, “Empathic communication: a teachable and learnable skill,” J. Gen Int. Med., 9:222-226, 1994; A. L. Suchmann, et al., “A model of empathic communication in the medical interview,” JAMA, 277:678-682, 1997; J. L. Coulehan, et al., “’Let me see if I have this right . . .’: words that help build empathy,”  Ann. Intern. Med., 136:221-227, 2001; H. M. Adler, “Toward a biopsychosocial understanding of the patient-physician relationship: an emerging dialogue,” J. Gen. Intern. Med., 22:280-285, 2007; M. Neumann et al., “Analyzing the ‘nature’ and ‘specific effectiveness’ of clinical empathy: a theoretical overview and contribution towards a theory-based research agenda,” Pat. Educ. Counseling, 74:339-346, 2009; K. Treadway & N. Chatterjee, “Into the water – the clinical clerkships,” NEJM, 364:1190-1193, 2011.

[3] Adler, “Biopsychosocial understanding,” p. 282.

[4] Suchmann, et al., “Model of empathic communication”; Neumann, “Analyzing ‘nature’ and ‘specific effectiveness’,” 343; K. A. Stepien & A. Baernstein, “Educating for empathy: a review,” J. Gen. Int. Med., 21:524-530, 2006; R. W. Squier, “A Model of empathic understanding and adherence to treatment regimens in practitioner-patient relationships,” Soc. Sci. Med., 30:325-339, 1990.

[5] H. Spiro, “What is empathy and can it be taught?”, Ann. Int. Med., 116:843-846, 1992; W. Zinn, “The empathic physician,” Arch. Int. Med., 153:306-312, 1993; H. Spiro, et al., Empathy and the Practice of Medicine (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993); J. Shapiro & L. Hunt, “All the world’s a stage: the use of theatrical performance in medical education,” Med. Educ., 37:922-927, 2003; J. Shapiro, et al., “Teaching empathy to first year medical students: evaluation of an elective literature and medicine course,” Educ. Health, 17:73-84, 2004; S. DasGupta & R. Charon, “Personal illness narratives: using reflective writing to teach empathy,” Acad. Med., 79:351-356, 2004; J. Shapiro, et al., “Words and wards: a model of reflective writing and its uses in medical education,” J. Med. Humanities, 27:231-244, 2006; J. Halpern, Empathy and patient-physician conflicts,” J. Gen. Int. Med., 22:696-700, 2007.

[6] Suchmann et al., “Model of empathic communication,” 681; Zinn, “Empathic physician,” 308; Halpern, “Empathy and conflicts,” 697.

[7] Halpern, “Empathy and conflicts,” 697; A. Smajdor, et al., “The limits of empathy: problems in medical education and practice,” J. Med. Ethics., 37:380-383, 2011.

[8] V. Gallese, “The roots of empathy: the shared manifold hypothesis and the neural basis of intersubjectivity,” Psychopathology, 36:171-180, 2003; L. Carr, et al., “Neural mechanisms of empathy in humans: a relay from neural systems for imitation to limbic area,” Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci., 100:5497-5502, 2003; G. Rizzolatti & L. Craighero, “The mirror-neuron system,” Ann. Rev. Neurosci., 27:169-192, 2004; V. Gallese, et al., “Intentional attunement: mirror neurons and the neural underpinnings of interpersonal relations,” J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 55:131-176, 2007.

Copyright © 2012 by Paul E. Stepansky.  All rights reserved.

Empathy, Psychotherapy, Medicine

What passes for psychoanalysis in America these days is a far cry from the psychoanalysis Freud devised in the early years of the last century.  A sea change began in the 1970s, when Heinz Kohut, a Vienna-born and Chicago-based psychoanalyst, developed what he termed “psychoanalytic self psychology.”  At the core of Kohut’s theorizing was the replacement of one kind of psychoanalytic method with another.   Freud’s method – which Freud himself employed imperfectly at best – revolved around the coolly self-possessed analyst, who, with surgeon-like detachment, processed the patient’s free associations with “evenly hovering attention” and offered back pearls of interpretive wisdom.  The analyst’s neutrality – his unwillingness to become a “real” person who related to the patient in conventionally sympathetic and supportive ways – rendered him a “blank screen” that elicited the same feelings of love and desire – and also of fear, envy, resentment, and hatred – as the mother and father of the patient’s early life.  These feelings clustered into what Freud termed the positive and negative transferences.

Kohut, however, found this traditional psychoanalytic method fraught with peril for patients burdened less with Freudian-type neurotic conflicts than with psychological deficits of a preoedipal nature.  These deficits gained expression in more primitive types of psychopathology, especially in what he famously termed  “narcissistic personality disorder.”  For these patients – and eventually, in Kohut’s mind, for all patients – the detached, emotionally unresponsive analyst simply compounded the feelings of rejection and lack of self-worth that brought the patient to treatment.  He proffered in its place a kinder, gentler psychoanalytic method in which the analyst was content to listen to the patient for extended periods of time, to affirm and mirror back what the patient was saying and feeling, and over time to forge an empathic bond from which interpretations would arise.

Following Kohut, empathy has been widely construed as an aspect, or at least  a precondition, of talking therapy.  For self psychologists and others who draw on Kohut’s insights, the ability to sympathize with the patient has given way to a higher-order ability to feel what the patient is feeling, to “feel with” the patient from the inside out.  And this process of empathic immersion, in turn, permits the therapist to “observe” the patient’s psychological interior and to comprehend the patient’s “complex mental states.”  For Kohut, the core of psychoanalysis, indeed of depth-psychology in general, was employment of this “empathic mode of observation,” an evocative but semantically questionable turn of phrase, given the visual referent of “observe,” which comes from the Latin observare (to watch over, to guard).   More counterintuitively still, he sought to cloak the empathic listening posture in scientific objectivism.  His writings refer over and over to the “data” that analysts acquire through their deployment of “scientific” empathy, i.e., through their empathic listening instrument.

I was Heinz Kohut’s personal editor from 1978 until his death in the fall of 1981.  Shortly after his death, I was given a dictated transcript from which I prepared his final book, How Does Analysis Cure?, for posthumous publication.  Throughout the 80s and into the 90s, I served as editor to many senior self psychologists, helping them frame their arguments about empathy and psychoanalytic method  and write their papers and books.  I grasped then, as I do now, the heuristic value of a stress on therapeutic empathy as a counterpoise to traditional notions of analytic neutrality, which gained expression, especially in the decades following World War II, in popular stereotypes of the tranquilly “analytic” analyst whose caring instincts were no match for his or her devotion to Freud’s rigid method.

The comparative perspective tempers bemusement at what would otherwise be a colossal conceit:  that psychoanalytic psychotherapists alone, by virtue of their training and work, acquire the ability to empathize with their patients.  I have yet to read an article or book that persuaded me that  empathy can be taught, or that the yield of therapeutic empathy is the apprehension of “complex psychological states” that are analogous to the “data” gathered and analyzed by bench scientists (Kohut’s own analogy).

I do believe that empathy can be cultivated, but only in those who are adequately empathic to begin with.  In medical, psychiatric, and psychotherapy training, one can present students with instances of patients clinically misunderstood and then suggest how one might have understood them better, i.e., more empathically.  Being exhorted by teachers to bracket one’s personal biases and predispositions in order to “hear” the patient with less adulterated ears is no doubt a good thing.  But it  assumes trainees can develop a psychological sensibility through force of injunction, which runs something like:  “Stop listening through the filter of your personal biases and theoretical preconceptions!  Listen to what the patient herself  is saying in her voice!  Utilize what you understand of yourself, viz., the hard-won fruits of your own psychotherapy (or training analysis), to put yourself in her place!  Make trial identifications so that her story and her predicament resonate with aspects of your story and your predicament; this will help you feel your way into her inner world.”

At a less hortatory level, one can provide trainees with teachers and supervisors who are sensitive, receptive listeners themselves and thus “skilled” at what self psychologists like to refer to as “empathic attunement.”  When students listen to such instructors and perhaps observe them working with patients, they may learn to appreciate the importance of empathic listening and then, in their own work, reflect more ongoingly on what their patients are saying and on how they are hearing them say it.  They acquire the ability for “reflection-in-action,” which Donald Schön, in two underappreciated books of the 1980s, made central to the work of “reflective professionals” in a number of fields, psychotherapy among them.[1]  To a certain extent, systematic reflection in the service of empathy may help therapists be more empathic in general.

But then the same may be said of any person who undergoes a transformative life experience (even, say, a successful therapy) in which he learns to understand differently – and less tendentiously – parents, siblings, spouses, children, friends, colleagues, and the like.  Life-changing events  — fighting in  wars, losing loved ones, being victimized by natural disasters, living in third-world countries, providing aid to trauma victims – cause some people to recalibrate values and priorities and adopt new goals.  Such decentering can mobilize an empathic sensibility, so that individuals return to their everyday worlds with less self-centered ways of perceiving and being with others.

There is nothing privileged about psychotherapy training in acquiring an empathic sensibility.  I once asked a senior self psychologist what exactly differentiated psychoanalytic empathy from empathy in its everyday sense.  He thought for a moment and replied that in psychoanalysis, one deploys “sustained” empathy.  What, pray tell, does this mean, beyond denoting the fact that psychoanalysts, whether or not empathic, listen to patients for a living, and the units of such listening are typically 45-minute sessions.  Maybe he simply meant that, in the nature of things, analysts must try to listen empathically for longer periods of time, and prolongation  conduces to empathic competence.

Well, anything’s possible, I suppose.  But the fact remains that some people are born empathizers and others not.  Over the course of a 27-year career in psychoanalytic and psychiatric publishing, I worked with a great many analysts and therapists who struck me as unempathic, sometimes stunningly unempathic.  And those who struck me as empathic were not aligned with any particular school of thought, certainly not one that, like self psychology, privileges empathy.

Nor is it self-evident  that the empathy-promoting circumstances of psychotherapy are greater than the circumstances faced day-in and day-out by any number of physicians. Consider adult and pediatric oncologists, transplant surgeons, and internists and gerontologists who specialize in palliative care.  These physicians deal with patients (and their parents and children) in extremis; surely their work should elicit “sustained empathy,” assuming they begin with an empathic endowment strong enough to cordon off the miasma of uncertainty, dread, and imminent loss that envelops them on daily rounds.  Consider at the other end of the medical spectrum those remaining family doctors  who, typically in rural settings, provide intergenerational, multispecialty care and continue to treat patients in their homes .  The nature of their work makes it difficult for them not to observe and comprehend their patients’ complex biopsychosocial states; there are extraordinary empathizers among them.

When it comes to techniques for heightening empathy, physicians have certain advantages over psychotherapists, since their patients present with bodily symptoms and receive bodily (often procedural) interventions, both of which have a mimetic potential beyond “listening” one’s way into another’s inner world.  There is more to say about the grounds of medical empathy, but let me close here with a concrete illustration of such empathy in the making.

William Stevenson Baer graduated from Johns Hopkins Medical College in 1898 and stayed on at Hopkins as an intern and then assistant resident in William Halsted’s dauntingly rigorous surgical training program.  In June, 1900, at the suggestion of Baer’s immediate supervisor, Harvey Cushing, Halsted asked Baer to establish an orthopedic outpatient clinic at Hopkins the following fall.  With no grounding in the specialty, Baer readied himself for his new task by spending the ensuing summer at the orthopedic services of Massachusetts General Hospital and the Boston Children’s Hospital.  At both institutions, many children in the orthopedic ward had to wear plaster casts throughout the hot summer months.  On arrival, Baer’s first order of business was to alter his life circumstances in order to promote empathy with, and win the trust of, these young patients.  To wit, he had himself fitted for a body cast that he wore the entire summer.  His sole object, according to his Hopkins colleague Samuel Crowe, was “to gain the children’s confidence by showing them that he too was enduring the same discomfort.”[2]

Psychotherapists are generally satisfied that empathy can be acquired in the manner of a thought experiment.  “Bracket your biases and assumptions,” they admonish, “empty yourself of ‘content,’ and then, through a process of imaginative identification, you will be able to hear what your patient is saying and feel what she is feeling.”  Baer’s example reminds us that illness and treatment are first and foremost bodily experiences, and that “feeling into another” – the literal meaning of the German Einfühlung, which we translate as “empathy” – does not begin and end with concordant memories amplified by psychological imagination.[3]  In medicine, there is an irremediably visceral dimension to empathy, and we shall consider it further in the next posting.


[1] Donald A. Schön, The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action (NY: Basic Books, 1983); Donald A. Schön, Educating the Reflective Practitioner (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1987).

[2] Samuel James Crowe, Halsted of Johns Hopkins: The Man and His Men (Springfield, IL: Thomas, 1957), pp. 130-31.

[3] The imaginative  component of empathy, which is more relevant to its function in psychotherapy than in medicine, is especially stressed by Alfred Margulies, “Toward Empathy: The Uses of Wonder,” American Journal of Psychiatry, 141:1025-1033, 1984.

Copyright © 2012 by Paul E. Stepansky.  All rights reserved.

My Doctor, My Friend

In a piece several months ago  in the Boston Globe, “Blurred Boundaries Between Doctor and Patient,” columnist and primary care internist Suzanne Koven writes movingly of her patient Emma, whom Koven befriended over the last 15 years of Emma’s life.  “Emma and I met frequently to gossip, talk about books and politics, and trade stories about our lives,” she remarks.  “She came to my house for dinner several times, and my husband and kids joined me at her 90th birthday party.  When, at 92, Emma moved reluctantly into a nursing home, I brought her the bagels and lox she craved – rich, salty treats her doctor had long discouraged her from eating.  Here’s the funny part:  I was that doctor.”

Koven writes perceptively of her initial concern with doctor-patient boundaries (heightened, she admits, by her status as “a young female physician”), her ill-fated efforts to maintain her early ideal of professional detachment, and, as with Emma, her eventual understanding that the roles of physician and friend could be for the most part “mutually reinforcing.”

As a historian of medicine interested in the doctor-patient relationship, I reacted to Koven’s piece appreciatively but, as I confessed to her, sadly.  For her initial concern with “blurred boundaries” and her realization after years of practice about the compatibility of friendship with primary medical care only underscore the fragmented and depersonalized world of contemporary medicine, primary care included.  By this, I mean that the quality of intimacy that grows out of most doctoring has become so shallow that we are led to scrutinize doctor-patient “friendship” as a problematic (Is it good?  Is it bad?  Should there be limits to it?) and celebrate instances of such friendship as signal achievements.   Psychoanalysts, be it noted, have been pondering these questions in their literature for decades, but they at least have the excuse of their method, which centrally implicates the analysis and resolution of transference with patients who tend to become inordinately dependent on them.

My father, William Stepansky, like many of the WWII generation, befriended his patients, but he befriended them as their doctor.  That is, he understood his medicine to include human provisions of a loving and Hippocratic sort.  Friendly two-way extramedical queries about his family, contact at community events, attendance at local weddings and other receptions – these were not boundary-testing land mines but aspects of community-embedded caregiving.  But here’s the rub:  My father befriended his patients as their doctor; his friendship was simply the caring dimension of his care-giving.  What, after all, did he have in common with the vast majority of his patients?  They were Protestants and Catholics, members of the Rotary and Kiwanis Clubs who attended the local churches and coached little league baseball and Pop Warner football.  He was an intellectual East European Jew, a serious lifelong student of the violin whose leisure time was spent practicing, reading medical journals, and tending to his lawn.

And yet to his patients, he was always a special friend, though he himself would admit nothing special about it:  his friendship  was simply the human expression of his calling.  He did not (to my knowledge) bring anyone bagels and lox or pay visits to chat about books or politics, but he provided treatment (including ongoing supportive psychotherapy) at no charge, accepted payment in kind, and visited patients in their homes when they became too elderly or infirm to come to the office.  Other routine “friendly” gestures included charging for a single visit when a mother brought a brood of sick children to the office during the cold season.  And when elderly patients became terminal, they did not have to ask – he simply began visiting them regularly in their homes to provide what comfort he could and to let them know they were on his mind.

When he announced his impending retirement to his patients in the fall of 1990, his farewell letter began “Dear Friend” and then expressed regret at “leaving many patients with whom I have shared significant life experience from which many long-term friendships have evolved.”  “It has been a privilege to serve as your physician for these many years,” he concluded.  “Your confidence and friendship have meant much to me.”  When, in my research for The Last Family Doctor, I sifted through the bags of cards and letters that followed this announcement, I was struck by the number of patients who not only reciprocated my father’s sentiment but summoned the words to convey deep gratitude for the gift of their doctor’s friendship.

In our own era of fragmented multispecialty care, hemmed in by patient rights, defensive medicine, and concerns about boundary violations, it is far from easy for a physician to “friend” a patient as physician, to be and remain a physician-friend.  Furthermore, physicians now wrestle with the ethical implications of “friending” in ways that are increasingly dissociated from a medical identity.  Many choose to forego professional distance at the close of a work day.  No less than the rest of us, physicians seek multicolored self states woven of myriad connective threads; no less than the rest of us, they are the Children of Facebook.

But there is a downside to this diffusion of connective energy.  When, as a society, we construe the friendship of doctors as extramedical, when we pull it into the arena of depersonalized connecting fostered by social media, we risk marginalizing the deeper kind of friendship associated with the medical calling: the physician’s nurturing love of the patient.   And we lose sight of the fact that, until the final two decades of the 19th century,  when advances in cellular biology, experimental physiology, bacteriology, and pharmacology ushered in an era of specific remedies for specific ailments, most effective doctoring – excluding only a limited number of surgeries – amounted to little more than just such friendship, such comfortable and comforting “friending” of sick and suffering people.

And this takes us back to Suzanne Koven, who imputes the “austere façade” of her medical youth to those imposing 19th-century role models “whose oil portraits lined the walls of the hospital [MGH] in which I did my medical training.”  Among the grim visages that stared down from on high was that of the illustrious James Jackson, Sr., who brought Jenner’s technique of smallpox inoculation to the shores of Boston in 1800, became Harvard’s second Hersey Professor of the Theory and Practice of Medicine in 1812, and was a driving force in the founding of MGH, which opened its doors in 1821.  Koven cites a passage from the second of Jackson’s Letters to a Young Physician (1855) in which he urges his young colleague to “abstain from all levity” and “never exact attention to himself.”

But why should absence of levity and focal concern with the patient be tantamount to indifference, coolness, the withholding of physicianly friendship?  Was Jackson really so forbidding a role model?  Composing his Letters in the wake of the cholera epidemic of 1848, when “regular” remedies such as bleeding and purging proved futile and only heightened the suffering of  thousands, Jackson cautioned modesty when it came to therapeutic pretensions.  He abjured the use of drugs “as much as possible,” and added that “the true physician takes care of his patient without claiming to control the disease in all cases.” Indeed he sought to restore “cure” to its original Latin meaning, to curare, the sense in which “to cure meant to take care.”  “The physician,” he instructed his protégé,

“may do very much for the welfare of the sick, more than others can do, although he does not, even in the major part of cases, undertake to control and overcome the disease by art.  It was with these views that I never reported any patients cured at our hospital.  Those who recovered their health before they left the house were reported as well, not implying that they were made so by the active treatment they had received there.  But it was to be understood that all patients received in that house were to be cured, that is, taken care of” [Letters to a Young Physician, p. 16, Jackson’s emphasis].

And then he moved on to the narrowing of vision that safeguarded the physician’s caring values, his cura:

“You must not mistake me.  We are not called upon to forget ourselves in our regard for others.  We do not engage in practice merely from philanthropy.  We are justified in looking for both profit and honor, if we give our best services to our patients; only we must not be thinking of these when at the bedside.  There the welfare of the sick must occupy us entirely” [Letters to a Young Physician, pp. 22-23].

Koven sees the Hippocratic commitment that lies beneath Jackson’s stern glance and, with the benefit of hindsight, links it to her friendship with Emma. “As mutually affectionate as our friendship was,” she concludes, “her health and comfort were always its purpose.”  Indeed.  For my father and any number of caring generalists, friendship was prerequisite to clinical knowing and foundational to clinical caring.  It was not extramural, not reserved for special patients, but a way of being with all patients.  And this friendship for his patients, orbiting around a sensibility of cura and a wide range of procedural activities, was not a heavy thing, leaden with solemnity.  It was musical.  It danced.

In the early 60s, he returns from a nursing home where he has just visited a convalescing patient.  I am his travelling companion during afternoon house calls, and I greet him on his return to the car.  He looks at me and with a sly grin remarks that he has just added “medicinal scotch” to the regimen of this elderly gentlemen, who sorely missed his liquor and was certain a little imbibing would move his rehab right along.  It was a warmly caring gesture worthy of Osler, that lover of humanity, student of the classics, and inveterate practical joker.  And a generation before Osler, the elder Jackson would have smiled.  Immediately after cautioning the young physician to “abstain from all levity,” he added: “He should, indeed, be cheerful, and, under proper circumstances, he may indulge in vivacity and in humor, if he has any.  But all this should be done with reference to the actual state of feeling of the patient and of his friends.”  Just so.

Copyright © 2012 by Paul E. Stepansky.  All rights reserved.

Hail the House Call

It is now 35 years since George Engel, an internist at the University of Rochester Medical School, formulated his biopsychosocial model of medicine (Science, 196:129, 1977).  Concerned with the reductionism and fragmentation inherent in scientifically guided specialist care, Engel called on his colleagues to locate biomedical interventions on a larger biopsychosocial canvas.  Drawing on the version of general systems theory popular in the 1970s, Engel argued that clinical assessment properly embraced a hierarchy of discrete biological, personal, and transpersonal levels, any combination of which might enter into the meaning of illness, whether acute or chronic.  Even in ostensibly biomedical conditions such as diabetes, cancer, and heart disease, Engel held, it was not simply deranged cells and dysfunctional organs that accounted for pathophysiology.  His model made a strong knowledge-related (i.e., epistemic) claim:  that hierarchically ordered layers of intra- and interpersonal stressors were causal factors in disease as it expressed itself  in this or that person.  It followed for Engel that personality structure; adaptive resources and “ego strength”; psychodynamic conflicts; two-person conflicts; family-related conflicts; conflicts in the workplace – these factors, in various combinations, entered into the scientific understanding of disease.

In devising the biopsychosocial model, Engels was influenced by the psychoanalysis of his day.  It is for this reason that biopsychosocial medicine is typically, and, I believe, erroneously, identified with the kind of “psychosomatic medicine” that analysis gave birth to in the quarter century following World War II (Psychosom. Med., 63:335, 2001). More generally still, it is conflated with psychosocial skills, especially as they enter into doctor-patient communication.  Because Engel’s model is not an algorithm for determining which levels of the patient “system” are implicated in this or that instance of illness, it has been criticized over the years for failing to guide clinical action, including the ordering of therapeutic goals (Comp. Psychiatry, 31:185, 1990).  Self-evidently, the model has proven very difficult to teach (Acad. Psychiatry, 28:88, 2004) and equally difficult to integrate into the conventional medical school curriculum (Psychosom. Med., 63:335, 2001).

These findings are hardly surprising.  It is difficult to teach doctors-in-training how to apply a biopsychosocial model when real-world doctoring rarely places them in regular contact with the transmedical “systems” invoked by the model.  This was not always the case.  Consider the house call, that site of biopsychosocial consciousness-raising throughout the 19th  and well into the 20th century.  It was in the home of the patient, after all, that the physician could actually experience the psychosocial “systems” that entered into the patient’s illness:  the patient’s personality, but also the patient as spouse, parent, sibling, son or daughter, all apprehended within the dynamics of a living family system.  And of course there was the home environment itself, a psychosocial container of medically salient information.  Wise clinicians of the early 20th century did not need the assistance of a biopsychosocial model to understand the role of the house call in cultivating the physician’s biopsychosocial sensibility.  Here is Harvard’s Francis Peabody in “The Care of the Patient” (1927):

“When the general practitioner goes into the home of a patient, he may know the whole background of the family life from past experience; but even when he comes as a stranger he has every opportunity to find out what manner of man his patient is, and what kind of circumstances make his life.  He gets a hint of financial anxiety or of domestic incompatibility; he may find himself confronted by a querulous, exacting, self-centered patient, or by a gentle invalid overawed by a dominating family; and as he appreciates how these circumstances are reacting on the patient he dispenses sympathy, encouragement or discipline.  What is spoken of as a ‘clinical picture’ is not just a photograph of a man sick in bed; it is an impressionistic painting of the patient surrounded by his home, his work, his relations, his friends, his joys, sorrows, hopes and fears” [JAMA, 88:877, 1927].

Three decades after Peabody’s lecture, I began riding shotgun when my father, William Stepansky, made his daily round of house calls in rural southeastern Pennsylvania.  Sometimes, especially with the older patients he visited regularly, I came into the house with him, where I was warmly welcomed, often with a glass of milk and home baked treats, as the doctor’s son and travelling companion.  From my time on the road, I learned how my father’s clinical gaze met and absorbed the anxious gazes of family members.  It became clear, over time, that his medical obligation was not only to the patient, but to the patient-as-member-of-a-family and to the family-as-medically-relevant-part-of-the-patient.  In a lecture to the junior class of his alma mater, Jefferson Medical college, in 1965, he made this very point in differentiating the scope of the family physician’s clinical gaze from that of the pediatrician and internist.  Unlike the latter, he observed, the family physician’s interventions occurred “within the special domain of the family,” and his treatment of the patient had to be continuously attentive to the “needs of family as an entity.”  It was for this reason, he added, that “family medicine must teach more than the arithmetic sum of the contents of specialties” (my father’s emphasis).  Here, in the mid-60s, my father posited a medical-interventional substratum to what would emerge a decade or so later, in the realm of psychotherapy, as family systems theory and “structural family therapy.” And then, 12 years before Engels came on the scene, he offered his conception of  “a solid intellectual approach to medicine”:

“To me this means relating the effects of the body systems one upon the other in health and disease through knowledge of the basic sciences – i.e., biochemistry and physiology – through some understanding of the social and environmental stresses on the patient, and finally through insight into the psychological influences of personality structure as it affects health and disease.”

Of course, physicians long before my father and long before Francis Peabody understood that medical treatment of the individual might entail interventions with transpersonal “systems.”  Witness the Victorian physicians of well-off American families of the 1870s and 1880s described by the historian Nancy Theriot (Amer. Studies, 26:69, 1990; Signs, 19:1, 1993; J. Hist. Behav. Sci., 37:349, 2001).  Making home visits to overwrought postpartum women in the throes of what was then termed “puerperal insanity” – we have only the far less evocative “postpartum depression” – these knowing family physicians dissuaded their patients from the drastic surgical interventions available to them (such as ovariotomy).  They recommended instead a change in the family “system” to accommodate the parturient’s urgent need for “time out” from the burdens of household management, childrearing, and husband-pleasing, to which care of a newborn was now superadded.  Is it any wonder that the matrons of these well-run Victorian households became “insane,” and that their insanity took the form, inter alia, of vile language, refusal to dress appropriately, refusal to resume housework, indifference to their children’s daily needs, and even – horribile dictu –  refusal to hold their newborns?  And yet these same women, flouting Victorian conventions with postpartum abandon, often returned to bourgeois sanity after the family physician, with the weight of medical authority, simply prescribed a daily period of solitude when the new mother, perhaps sitting alone in the family garden, was not to be disturbed – not by anyone.  Biopsychosocial intervention aimed at the family “system” was never so elegantly simple.

Interventions of this sort are hardly unknown among contemporary providers, some small percentage of whom continue to visit their patients in their homes.   Further, as one of my correspondents has reminded me, all family medicine residencies employ full-time behaviorists, usually psychologists, who help trainees develop a biopsychosocial model of care. But outside of these programs the biopsychosocial model remains where it has always been – on the fringe of a medical world of fragmented and technology-driven specialist care.  In this sense, it is no different than the house call, which lives on among some 4,000 physicians in the U.S. and through a very few university hospital-based “house call programs.”  But let there be no mistake:  these physicians and these programs are at the far margins of primary care.  When the American Academy of Family Physicians polled its active members in 2008 on the settings in which they saw patients, respondents from urban and rural regions alike reported an average of 0.6 house calls a week.  (My father, in the 50s and 60s, averaged 3-4 a day.)  If this figure represents the rate at which house call-making doctors make house calls, then it is fair to say that the house call has long since ceased to be an intrinsic – and intrinsically humanizing – dimension of primary care.  This is why I pay tribute to the Great American House Call.  It is a relic of an era when biopsychosocial medicine suffused general practice without the aid of a biopsychosocial model.

Addendum

Unbeknown to many, the healthcare reform bill passed by Congress in March, 2010 contains an “Independence at Home Act” that provides physicians with financial incentives to treat their oldest and sickest patients in their homes.  To wit, house call-making doctors will share in cost saving if they can “prove” their in-home care reduced hospital use and left their patients satisfied.   So much for the scientific bona fides of biopsychosocial medicine.  It’s about the money, stupid.

Copyright © 2011 by Paul E. Stepansky.  All rights reserved.