From the Archive: Patients-as-Syndromes in Internal Medicine

In our “From the Archive” series, we highlight an article from a past issue of the journal. In this installment, we explore Robert A. Hahn’s piece “‘Treat the patient, not the lab’: Internal medicine and the concept of ‘Person,'” available in full here. This article was featured in Volume 6, Issue 3 (September 1982.)


Throughout the history of the journal, our authors have turned the same anthropological gaze equally onto both biomedicine and other medical systems. As Hahn introduces this article, he states that the healer in all cultural contexts fashions medical and social truths together, such that the patient and patient body are reinterpreted (and potentially reordered) through medical treatment by the healer. Biomedicine, he states, also recasts illness in ways that alter the medical position of the patient. To understand how physicians of biomedicine engage with patients conceptually in this way, Hahn conducted an ethnographic study of four internists. As internal medicine is often characterized as highly rationalistic and thus emblematic of biomedical practice, Hahn argues, he states that understanding the internists’ perspectives may shed light more broadly on biomedicine as a particular method of envisioning illness and its relationship to the patient.

Hahn begins by positing that the nature of internal medicine as a profession itself is a form of interpretation of what constitutes the patient and body over which it has medical purview. Internal medicine does not focus on mental health (psychiatry) or on the internal visceral body (surgery.) Thus, the “body” it treats exists in relative isolation from the mind, yet is not a physical or functional body such as the one manipulated directly through surgery. The conditions internists treat exist apart from the person and, to a degree, from the patient’s body: instead, the internist focuses on internal diseases and pathologies that become entities of treatment divorced from the individual receiving care. These illnesses– forged into concrete ontological “things”– are countered with similarly material antidotes. Hahn adds that the prestigious status of the internist in the culture of clinical practice, both currently and historically, lends this physiologically-based view of the body and its treatment significant legitimacy in the biomedical landscape.

To demonstrate these concepts, Hahn presents the case of internist Dr. Barry Siegler. “Barry,” as he comes to be called, repeatedly instructs his residents and other clinicians to be wary of individual metrics and lab results, as these single numbers and tests cannot be incrementally fixed: rather, he contends, they must be examined and addressed in concert such that the whole patient is successfully treated. Hahn describes this as relational knowledge of pathology, rather than “singly” reading and responding to individual metrics. However, Barry does not mean to champion holistic, person-centered care: instead, he posits that the entire patient should serve as the point of focus such that no aspect of the patient’s pathology is excluded from diagnosis and subsequent treatment. For example, Barry argues that the patient interview is a tool for the extraction of cues that would lead the clinician to better understand the etiology and symptomatology at hand.

Thus the patient’s “syndrome” comes to exist as a materially and ontologically “real” entity that is distinct from the social, personal, and existential contexts of the patient’s life. This perspective is crystallized in Barry’s tendency to refer to patients as their diseases, such as “a conversion reaction.” He also refers to patients he believes to have mental illness in the same manner, such as the “neurotic,” although he admits that psychiatric pathologies are a “Pandora’s box” beyond the limits of his professional power to address. Again, the patient as a person (and even as a subject or individual mind) fades as the disease pathologies that characterize their illness are reified and made the central objects of the internist’s medical gaze. Due to the close alignment between physiology and organic sciences (chemistry and biology), Hahn notes that the internist’s ontological transformation of the patient into their pathologies– and the pathologies into discrete objects of attention– are deemed especially real, true, and justifiable. Likewise, the body itself is interpreted as a closed, contained system that becomes the object of internal medicine: the ‘whole patient’ is instead the ‘whole pathophysiology.’

Hahn concludes that this vision of the body is decidedly Western: it individualizes the body, and makes a Cartesian division between the body (physical) and the mind (psychological, social) such that it is made treatable and conceptually readable by internists who isolate it from other contexts and who distinguish diseases as concrete, material things. The article ultimately suggests that certain biomedical visions of the body and appropriate patterns for treatment may not align with the perspectives of patients, who understand their illness within the social, spiritual, cultural, and other frameworks that structure their daily lives.



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