Depersonalisation and its Implications on Health Systems


What is depersonalisation?

According to the Chamber’s Dictionary, depersonalization is : to make impersonal or dehumanize and Thesaurus refers to the term as, make impersonal or present as an object.

Considering the wide scope of the term’s meaning, I will take the liberty to discuss depersonalization in two dimensions (although they are interlinked, and so they are discussed in continuum):

  1. Depersonalisation of doctor-patient relationship (based on I-You: the dialogue principle by the philosopher Martin Buber)
  2. Depersonalisation as a result of excessive use of technology (in specific the communication technology)

Let us start to build the discussion by focusing first on the doctor – patient relationship.

Why discuss depersonalisation?

In his book “Ich und du”, Martin Buber established a thought of interconnectedness of human beings. Building on this thought, one wouldn’t have the difficulty to understand the importance of communication and interconnectedness that is shared between a Doctor and his/her patient, who is sick. What can be clearly seen in the modern health systems is the traversing away from I-You relationship to I-it, as the patient is seen as an object. The following paragraph is fuelled by an idea, that the doctor and his/her staff forms the most essential and basic unit of health care and health care system.

Depersonalisation: more harm than good:

In a study of burnout (syndrome of depersonalization, emotional exhaustion, and a sense of low personal accomplishment that leads to decreased effectiveness at work), it emerged that burnout was common amongst the resident physicians and was associated with self-reported suboptimal patient care practices . To be underlined here is the delivery of suboptimal services to the patients, which in turn can prove to be a huge blow to the effectiveness and responsiveness of any health care system. This and many such studies effectively reveal the suffering of doctors who have been idealised for ages, probably forgetting that a doctor is a human being as well.

Where does this all come from? Although there is no single answer to this, but I would like to draw attention to neo-liberalism, simply because we all are so closely associated with it.

Neo-liberalism in health care:

The very term ‘patient’ has undergone a significant change, and in the neo-liberal world patient came to be called as client, consumer or even customer, which highlights the business proposition or intention of health care. We need to demarcate one underlying fact that a health care system is not saddled by business principles.

The collapse of the Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Health system serves as the most appropriate example to explain what application of market and business principle can do, to an essentially human driven health system.

To cut the long story short, depersonalisation is the suffering of both the patient and the doctor (as noted in the earlier paragraphs), which cumulates to the suffering of the health system.

Let us turn our pages back into the past and see what WHO had to say about the health care systems.

Health system and the World Health Report 2000 (depersonalisation and responsiveness)

The World Health Report 2000 enshrines dignity and responsiveness of the health care system in its fundamentals. Despite of the fact that dignity has been recognized by the international law, patients are belittled to mere objects, which challenges the principle of responsiveness of health system, as well as their right to dignity and respect. Dignity as a part of communication within the health system, if not addressed also affects the accessibility of health care. Depersonalisation can not only hamper doctor-patient relationship but can also upset the dynamics of human relationships within and outside the health care system.

Let me pull some inputs from the movie Sicko. The movie is a parody of the American health system through a story of an American rescuer of the 9/11 attacks. She suffered from respiratory difficulties as an outcome of the rescue and relief work. The unresponsiveness of the profit driven health care system, particularly the insurance companies added to her grievance. She finally got to a hospital in Havana, Cuba and was spellbound by not only the low cost care but also by the assurance and personal touch that she received. This raises the question; do we want a techno savvy depersonalised healthcare system or the one that has a more humane face?

Changing patientele – the other side of the coin:

Clientele for many other industries (say for example manufacturing industries) is very different from the patients or people that healthcare systems deal with. The discussion that “healthcare” is a market failure is not new, but in this discussion of depersonalisation, the most important factor to be focused upon is – the difference in the knowledge levels of the provider and the patient. Since clientele is more to do with business, I use the word patientele in order to clearly demarcate healthcare from business. However, more recently health care is not as passive as it used to be and patients increasingly want to be a part of the decisions that are made for their health.

The expounding knowledge of health and disease further adds to the complexity of healthcare delivery, coupled with an increasing burden of disease and ageing populations that adds to the pressure on the healthcare system and the staff within it.

In the given scenario, technology is seen as the answer to this mounting pressure. The new age health informatics is possibly the way around, not to forget tools like e-medicine and tele-medicine. Certainly, if used effectively; technology has a role to play in enhancing the efficiency of health care system.

Understanding the patientele view and attitudes towards technology and the role it plays in depersonalisation is another area that needs to be explored. In a research conducted in Virginia exploring the attitudes of the patients to the use of tablet PC in the exam room demonstrated that, most of the patients had perceived the use of tablet PC positively. However, I would implore that we understand, that such research results cannot be applied to every context of health system, and much needs to be done by the health system of each country to understand its own patientele.

Technology in every stage of health care:

Most of the ancient systems of medicine; diagnosis and treatment had personal attention and human touch; in fact touch therapies were also practiced. Today’s modern healthcare system has technology in every step, from diagnostics to treatment and even after-care. Arguably technology is making the healthcare system increasingly depersonalised and mechanising the doctor-patient relationship, and has far reaching effects on the healthcare costs.

Another aspect that threatens well-being is that of self-medication. The ready availability of information, over-the-counter drugs and their indiscriminate use, diagnostic tests and the rising costs of consultation is an impediment to quality and effectiveness of healthcare system. A Wall Street Journal article expressed the fear of degrading doctor-patient relationship, decline in liability due to technology and violation of law.

Even the concept of Primary Health Care that had been seen as an answer to the undermined health care systems, suffered a setback. Let’s see how?..

Increasing investment in technology and the decline of Primary Health Care:

Primary health care by definition includes community participation. Unless a healthcare system and its components are sensitive enough, primary health care cannot achieve, what it had set out to achieve. Despite the Alma Ata declaration and its concept of community health workers (CHW), this revolutionary concept suffered a setback due to excessive investment and focus on technology. The revitalisation of the concept of primary health care and increasing evidence on social determinants of health; calls for more human connectedness.

At one end technology is seen as an instrument for depersonalisation, but nonetheless used in the right direction technology is a medium to reach people in the most remote location. The WHO report 2008 recognises the fact that technology is one way to maximise the return of the health care system.

Having seen dimensions of health care discussed in this essay, we cannot stick to one solution; because there are no magic bullets.

Summarising the dimensions:

On one hand the health care systems across the globe are overburdened and there is a severe lack resources, which in turn cause a pressure on its human resources leads to depersonalisation, thereby affecting the responsiveness, accessibility and effectiveness of the system. On the other hand where technology could have found some relief, it became invasive; and lead to the blurring of Primary Health Care.


Firstly it is important that we understand health care disjoint from business principle, essentially because ‘Health’ is a fundamental human right.

The mounting pressure on the human resources within the system needs to be released, through various interventions, and not by adding more number of people to the system; but by using the existing human resource judiciously and in a managed way. Merely adding employees will add to the costs and further thinning of the available finances.

The working environment should be supportive, innovative ways like ergonomics can prove to be effective tools to help build such environments.

The training of the medical and the paramedical personnel should entrench the wider perspective of social determinants of health. Essentially, medical training cannot just remain technical, but should have a more human face, and that the doctors are not treating just the disease but are treating a human being.

Communication technology is a huge resource, which can be utilised to reach out to inaccessible areas and to a larger number of people and serve to enhance the efficacy of the communication. However, technology is not the answer to all questions; rather it should be used to support the health care system. Judicious use of technology and cutting unnecessary costs on its use is an urgent need. We need to think before we invest.

The Primary Health Care is a concept that will significantly increase the human connectedness and community participation. Surely it is an answer to the increasing depersonalisation of the health system and reduce its burden. While people respond to their needs, health care system can then became an adjunct for meeting their health needs.

As we talk about concepts like Global Village and greater human interactions, we cannot keep the issue of depersonalisation unaddressed within our own health care systems. While the health care systems takes care of its people, so should it meet the needs of its human resource, for which there is no single answer, and that every action we take should be carefully constructed around the values of the society that the health care system serves and belongs to.



  • Chamber’s Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
  • The Depersonalisation of Health Care. Joseph J. Zealberg. M.D. Psychiatric Services, March 1999, Vol. 5. Number. 3.
  • Burnout and Self Reported Patient Care in an Internal Medicine Residency Program. Tait D. Shanafelt, MD; Katharine A. Bradley,  MD, MPH; Joyce E. Wipf, MD; and Anthony L. Back,  MD.  Annals of Internal Medicine. March 2002. Vol.136. No. 5.
  • The Art of Medicine. Suffering of Physicians. The Lancet, October 2009. Vol. 374.
  • Supporting Communication in Health Care; International Journal of Medical Informatics, Editorial by P.J. Toussaint, E. Coira.
  • Patient Attitudes towards Physician use of Tablet Computers in the Exam Room. Scott, M. Strayer, MD, MPH; Matthew W. Semler, MD, Marit L. Kington, MS, Kawai O. Tanabe, MPH. Family Medicine. October 2010, Vol. 42. No. 9.
  • World Health Report 2000. Health Systems. Improving Performance.
  • World Health Report 2008. Primary Health Care. Now more than ever.
  • Wall Street Journal.


2 Comments on Depersonalisation and its Implications on Health Systems

  1. Rakesh Parashar on Tue, 26th Jul 2011 11:47 am
  2. Dr Neha,
    Thats perhaps one f the most critical issues u have raised in todays healthcare delivery. Depersonalisation is more about lack of sensitivity and losing that basic common sense of running service delivery businesses. Its evident in developed nations’ healthcare systems , and countries like our are enthusiastic followers of the trend.
    We need to raise more voices for it not only as another social movement only but for the better survival of healthcare business, if at all i t has to be one.

  3. Dr. Neha Rai on Tue, 26th Jul 2011 4:30 pm
  4. Thank you for your comment Dr. Parashar. I remember speaking with one of the Doctors in the state health system who said that the hospital staff in the Government hospitals is used to seeing emergency cases in critical care, that they really don’t get affected and refrain from taking the case. This situation that can consume life of someone, is looked at as an every day job (not that it is not). But an emergency is not an emergency of not managed withing first 20 minutes of reporting. Depersonalisation is people’s costing lives…

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