Bioethics Blogs

Can Health Care Providers Love Their Patients?

by J.S. Blumenthal-Barby

Ms. Clara [name changed] is one of our patient partners on a PCORI funded project. PCORI is unique in that they aim to include patients and other stakeholders in all stages of research—from conceptualization of projects and their aims to the dissemination of results. We’ve been working closely with Ms. Clara and other patient partners for almost two years now. A few months ago, when visiting Ms. Clara in the hospital, her eyes became teary and she exclaimed, “I love you guys. I just feel like you really care, and you mean so much to me.”

This gave me a great deal of pause: can we tell one of our patient partners that we love her in return? Do we love her? What would that mean? I relayed this story to one of the members of Ms. Clara’s health care team, who replied, “Oh yes, everybody loves Ms. Clara.”

This was the first time I had ever encountered the language of love in the professional setting of health care. And I wondered: Can doctors or other health care providers really love their patients? And is that appropriate?

Perhaps the contemporary philosopher who has thought the most about and developed the most robust account of love is Harry Frankfurt. This account is outlined in his book, The Reasons of Love. According to Frankfurt, love is a particular mode of caring that is defined by several characteristics.

  1. Love involves a concern for the existence of the beloved and for its wellbeing (for its own sake).

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.