Dehumanization in Medicine: Causes, Solutions, and Functions

Perspect Psychol Sci. 2012 Mar;7(2):176-86. doi: 10.1177/1745691611429706.


Dehumanization is endemic in medical practice. This article discusses the psychology of dehumanization resulting from inherent features of medical settings, the doctor-patient relationship, and the deployment of routine clinical practices. First, we identify six major causes of dehumanization in medical settings (deindividuating practices, impaired patient agency, dissimilarity, mechanization, empathy reduction, and moral disengagement). Next, we propose six fixes for these problems (individuation, agency reorientation, promoting similarity, personification and humanizing procedures, empathic balance and physician selection, and moral engagement). Finally, we discuss when dehumanization in medical practice is potentially functional and when it is not. Appreciating the multiple psychological causes of dehumanization in hospitals allows for a deeper understanding of how to diminish detrimental instances of dehumanization in the medical environment.

Keywords: dehumanization; empathy; health; medicine; policy.