Dehumanization in medicine is endemic and while it can result in disastrous effects, it also can be beneficial in some cases, according to new research.
“Anyone who has been admitted into a hospital or undergone a procedure, even if cared for in the most appropriate way, can feel as though they were treated like an animal or object,” says Harvard University psychologist and physician Omar Sultan Haque.
Dehumanization can lead to “deindividuation,” with doctors in their white coats and patients half-naked in smocks, identified by their disease or procedure (“the gallbladder in Room 38”), which allows staff to avoid taking responsibility for each patient.
“Impaired patient agency” refers to patients who are seen as incapable of planning their own care, which is both infantilizing and demoralizing, while “dissimilarity,” whether in race, class, or gender, can cause miscommunication and alienation, which doesn’t result in good medical care, the researchers note.
However, there are some dehumanizing practices that may aid care, the research found.
Diagnosis and treatment often necessitates “mechanization”— breaking the body into organs and systems. Scaling back empathy can curtail staff burnout. Even moral disengagement can be helpful, the researcher notes. From giving a shot to slicing into the body to perform surgery, medical care often requires inflicting pain or invading the boundaries of the body.
And even with the best of care, patients die, which can lead to paralyzing guilt for the health care professional.
Still, the researchers argue, dehumanization is useful only in “specific contexts,” such as acute care.
“Dehumanization’s functionality varies wildly across specialities from pediatrics to orthopedic surgery, so future research is needed to determine when dehumanization is most prevalent and most detrimental,” says Adam Waytz of the Kellogg School of Management of Northwestern University, who co-authored the study.
It appears in the latest issue of Perspectives in Psychological Science.
The researchers offer some tips to humanize care, such as calling patients by name, not numbers; discouraging the labeling of people as diseases; including patients in care planning; and letting them choose their gowns — and designing those gowns so they’re not so humiliating. Other tips: Increase physician diversity and hire people with good social skills.
“We should train medical professionals to think of themselves as mortal — sharing a common humanity and vulnerability with their patients,” says Haque.