Letters Call for more compassion in medicine

Human experience isn’t multiple choice

BMJ 2016; 355 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.i6309 (Published 28 November 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;355:i6309
  1. Judith H Harvey, retired GP
  1. London, UK
  1. judithharvey12{at}btinternet.com

Heath discusses the rift between evidence and humanity in medicine.1 Quantum physics has shown us that phenomena are rarely black or white. The closer we get to boundaries, the fuzzier things become. We are all a mixture of qualities, positioned differently on thousands of different spectra. Height, obviously, but people with trisomy 21 or men whose X chromosome lacks the gene for factor VIII are not identical to others with the same genotype. Even gender is no longer seen as binary.

Attempts to force human experience into a straitjacket are doomed to reduce the humanity of medicine. Such attempts are built into the process of medical education: multiple choice exam papers are easy to mark but give the candidate no opportunity to consider and demonstrate how knowledge can be applied with humanity.

A complex society can’t function without categories, but a humane society recognises that life cannot be reduced to tick boxes.


  • Competing interests: None declared.


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