We see …
• high stakes (your life and limb are at risk)
• unequal knowledge (unless you are the same kind of doctor)
• unequal power (your doctor is the only one with power to prescribe effective hi-tech diagnostics and therapeutics)
• patient autonomy (you have the final say about what is—or is not—done)
• extraordinary intimacy (you allow your doctors to plumb the private recesses of your body and psyche; you may share details of your life you’ve told nobody else on earth)
• paid fiduciary obligations (doctors’ fees are tied to their commitment to your well-being)
• and, importantly, the physicians’ oath to do no harm and to treat you with beneficence
So if you are sick or in pain, you don’t look to your doctor to bring you a casserole, as a friend would. Or to lovingly stroke your hair until you fall asleep, as a parent would. You’d freak out if your doctor looked distressed.
Rather, you look to your physicians for compassion that is controlled and informed, molded by years of training. This compassion—let’s call it medical compassion for now—serves your relationship by fostering high-quality, humane medical care.
Next: The culture in which compassion arises.