Understanding the ethical implications of the rituals of medicine

Mark H. Arnold, Paul Komesaroff, Ian Kerridge

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)


Rituals may be understood broadly as stereotyped behaviours carrying symbolic meanings, which play a crucial role in defining relationships, legitimating authority, giving meaning to certain life events and stabilising social structures. Despite intense interest in the subject, and an extensive literature, relatively little attention has been given to the nature, role and function of ritual in contemporary medicine. Medicine is replete with ritualistic behaviours and imperatives, which play a crucial role in all aspects of clinical practice. Rituals play multiple, complex functions in clinical interactions and have an important role in shaping interactions, experiences and outcomes. Longstanding medical rituals have been disrupted in the wake of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Medical rituals may be evident or invisible, often overlap with or operate alongside instrumentalised practices, and play crucial roles in establishing, maintaining and guaranteeing the efficacy of clinical practices. Rituals can also inhibit progress and change, by enforcing arbitrary authority. Physicians should consider when they are undertaking a ritual practice and recognise when the exigencies of contemporary practice are affecting that ritual with or without meaning or intention. Physicians should reflect on whether aspects of their ritual interactions are undertaken on the basis of sentiment, custom or evidence-based outcomes, and whether rituals should be defended, continued in a modified fashion or even abandoned in favour of new behaviours suitable for and salient with contemporary practice in the interests of patient care.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1123-1131
Number of pages9
JournalInternal Medicine Journal
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2020


  • clinical practice
  • context effects
  • ethics
  • patient-doctor relationship
  • rituals

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