Plunkett Centre Annual Lecture explores the human face of healthcare

ACU bioethicist Xavier Symons examined the human face of healthcare in this year’s Plunkett Centre Annual Lecture.

Dr Symons is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Plunkett Centre for Ethics at ACU.

The Plunkett Centre is a joint venture of Australian Catholic University, St Vincent’s Health Network and Calvary Healthcare. It leads the study and teaching of ethics in clinical practice and biomedical research.

In the online lecture, Dr Symons explored how the healthcare system had become mired in red tape and lost its humanity.

“Contemporary healthcare has been economically and scientifically rationalised and patients are seen as problems to be fixed rather than people to be encountered,” Dr Symons said.

“The inspiration for this lecture was a reflection on the irony that hospitals –historically places of welcome and refuge for pilgrims and strangers – have become strange and uninviting places.

“Hospitals are the sort of place that we might, ironically, avoid like the plague.”

Dr Symons said the tension at the heart of the healthcare system had become more pronounced during the COVID pandemic, as medical professionals were pushed to breaking point.

“Healthcare professionals are under such profound physical, psychological and spiritual strain that they are unable to provide genuine hospitality to patients,” he said.

“It’s hard for an emergency physician to ‘welcome a patient’, even to smile, when their ED is bed-blocked and they’re fourteen hours into a ten-hour shift.

“Hospital staff are deeply morally distressed and spiritually drained to the core.”

Dr Symons said that for healthcare to rediscover the virtue of hospitality, medical training must emphasise integrated and holistic care.

“The deepest crisis in contemporary healthcare is a focus on physical health and healing to the exclusion of hospitality and spirituality,” he said.

“Healthcare has become hostile to the idea of a spiritual dimension to medicine – something that was at the core of the West’s first hospitals.

“Medical education should not discourage doctors from integrating different religious and philosophical traditions into the care they provide.

“This is not a question of additional funding, but of what money can’t buy — the human face of healthcare.”

Dr Symons is the recipient of a 2020 Fulbright Future Postdoctoral Scholarship and was a scholar in residence at Georgetown University’s Kennedy Institute for Ethics. Next month, he will embark on a two-year postdoctoral research fellowship at Harvard University.


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