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Sickness and Suffering

The goal of medicine is to prevent sickness and suffering, indicating that the relief of suffering is as important in the medical paradigm as the prevention and cure of sickness.  Medical practice focuses more heavily on the treatment of sickness, based on the assumption that this will produce a reduction in suffering by a direct cause and effect relationship.  In large measure, the emphasis on treating sickness is the outcome of the reductive paradigms of medicine that rely on objective scientific methods to contend with measurable and observable phenomenon. In contrast, suffering is an amorphous and subjective aspect of the human condition that is difficult to quantify and varies from individual to individual.  It is composed of physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual elements that impact the overall well being of patients and their long-term prognosis.  Sickness and SufferingUnderstanding the full range of the concept of suffering is of interest not only because it is an integral aspect of my work in a burn unit, but also because a broad understanding of its nature is not generally included in a medical curriculum due the concept’s inherent limitations on empirical investigation.  The purpose of this analysis is to more carefully identify the causes of suffering and to determine if an integrative approach to the remediation of the causative factors can reduce suffering.

Concepts of Suffering

This analysis of the concept of suffering is of particular importance to practice in a Burn Unit where suffering is endemic.  Treatment protocols focus on physical pain, which can be alleviated to some degree by a regimen of appropriate medication.  The patients, however, are often devastated emotionally, spiritually and psychologically, particularly after they realize that their lives are likely to be forever altered by their trauma. While approaches to the amelioration of these subjective aspects of suffering exist, they are overshadowed by the immediacy of treating the physical aspects of the trauma.  There is also is a tendency among medical personnel exposed to high levels of suffering to insulate themselves emotionally, which leads to objectifying the patient.  The purpose of this analysis is to create a better understanding of the concept of suffering in order to develop a more integrative approach to the concurrent treatment of physical, emotional, spiritual and psychological suffering.  Such an approach requires knowledge of both the causative and remedial aspects of suffering.  In addition, this analysis is aimed at fostering recognition of the holistic nature of suffering to help practitioners cope with both their own and their patients’ responses to suffering.

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