Evaluating emotions in medical practice: a critical examination of 'clinical detachment' and emotional attunement in orthopaedic surgery

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In this article I propose to reframe debates about ideals of emotion in medicine, abandoning the current binary setup of this debate as one between 'clinical detachment' and empathy. Inspired by observations from my own field work and drawing on Sky Gross' anthropological work on rituals of practice as well as Henri Lefebvre's notion of rhythm, I propose that the normative drive of clinical practice can be better understood through the notion of attunement. In this framework individual types of emotions are not, as such, appropriate or inappropriate, but are evaluated depending on their synchronicity with the specific rhythms of the practice. To set up this proposal, I show how typical arguments about emotions in medicine-what I call emotion-entity focused frameworks-are insufficient. I then draw on ethnographic observations from two orthopaedic departments and interviews with medical practitioners to show (1) how clinical practice is driven by rhythmicity, shaped in the case of orthopaedic surgery by a clinical aim of efficient, controlled intervention, and (2) how clinicians continuously refer to this drive and the flow of rhythms when evaluating inappropriate or problematic emotion. I argue that the use of a rhythm framework rather than ideals of detachment or empathy allows for a sensitivity to the complexity and situation-dependent elements of emotional ideals in clinical practice; and I end by proposing the term 'attuned concern'-which stresses the importance of regulation and adjustment to circumstances rather than of maintaining a constant distance/involvement-as a more fitting alternative to 'clinical detachment'.

Original languageEnglish
JournalMedicine, Health Care and Philosophy
Pages (from-to)413–428
Number of pages16
Publication statusPublished - 2022

Bibliographical note

© 2022. The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature B.V.

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