Medicine Masked: Ethical Implications of Half-Hidden Faces During a Pandemic

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The most visible change to medicine in 2020 has rendered human faces only half-visible. In an effort to reduce transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, healthcare professionals everywhere, and patients too, are now wearing face masks covering the nose and mouth whenever meeting in person. Masks block germs, but they can also block communication, as positive emotions are conveyed by the lower part of the face. When the mouth is covered, smiles are hidden. Expressions of intent may seem ambiguous, of concern neutral, of empathy imperceptible. Although medically necessary during an infectious pandemic, masks shroud a vital feature of our shared sense of humanity and may lessen the perception of presence at the bedside. In order that the face-to-face healing encounter is not reduced to a rendezvous of the hemi-anonymous, masked caregivers must be especially intentional in their eye contact, tone of voice, and chosen words.

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Cite as: William P. Cheshire, Jr., “Medicine Masked: Ethical Implications of Half-Hidden Faces During a Pandemic,” Ethics & Medicine 36, no. 3 (2020): 137–142.

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About the Author

William P. Cheshire, Jr., MD
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William P. Cheshire, Jr., MD, MA, is Professor of Neurology at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida. He is also Senior Fellow in The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity’s Academy of Fellows. In 2019, the Christian Medical & Dental Associations awarded him Educator of the Year. The views expressed herein are his own and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the professional organizations with which he is affiliated.

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