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Social suffering: relevance for doctors

BMJ 1997; 315 doi: (Published 20 December 1997) Cite this as: BMJ 1997;315:1634

Healthcare professionals need to broaden their understanding of health and suffering

  1. Solomon R Benatar, Professor of medicinea
  1. a Department of Medicine and Bioethics Centre, University of Cape Town and Groote Schuur Hospital, Observatory 7925, Cape South Africa

The term social suffering describes collective and individual human suffering associated with life conditions shaped by powerful social forces.1 Unlike physical suffering or mental illness, it is largely unrecorded. New measures such as disability adjusted life years, designed to document the global distribution of morbidity in economic and individualistic terms, only barely represent a much more complex concept of suffering as a social experience and neglect most of what is at stake for people globally.2 Yet more than ever social suffering requires scholarly attention to facilitate cross cultural discourse and peaceful development in an increasingly interdependent world.1 2 3

Social suffering has evolved from the state of ignorance, vulnerability to nature, and terror associated with naked tyrannical power in the dark ages to the diverse suffering associated with wealth creating progress since the Enlightenment.2 In 16th century Europe enclosure of common land dispossessed the poor. A century later the industrial revolution generated abysmal working conditions in European factories. Pervasive forces in the 20th century continue to inflict suffering worldwide.

Since the Enlightenment demands for respecting human dignity have progressively ameliorated indignities suffered under oppressive rulers, industrialists, and slave owners. The Universal …

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