"why are we doing this?": Clinician helplessness in the face of suffering

Anthony L. Back, Cynda H. Rushton, Alfred W. Kaszniak, Joan S. Halifax

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

36 Scopus citations


Background: When the brutality of illness outstrips the powers of medical technology, part of the fallout lands squarely on front-line clinicians. In our experience, this kind of helplessness has cognitive, emotional, and somatic components. Objectives: Could we approach our own experiences of helplessness differently? Here we draw on social psychology and neuroscience to define a new approach.

Methods: First, we show how clinicians can reframe helplessness as a self-barometer indicating their level of engagement with a patient. Second, we discuss how to shift deliberately from hyper-or hypo-engagement toward a constructive zone of clinical work, using an approach summarized as "RENEW": recognizing, embracing, nourishing, embodying, and weaving-to enable clinicians from all professional disciplines to sustain their service to patients and families.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)26-30
Number of pages5
JournalJournal of Palliative Medicine
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Nursing
  • Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine


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