This essay is a reflection on the doctor–patient relationship from the perspective of two medical students, which draws on the ideas of 20th-century philosopher Martin Buber. Although Buber never wrote about medicine directly, his ‘philosophy of dialogue’ raises fundamental questions about how human beings relate to one another, and can thus offer valuable insights into the nature of the clinical encounter. We argue that Buber's basic word pairs, ‘I–You’ and ‘I–It’, provide a useful heuristic for understanding different modes of caring for patients, which we illustrate using examples of illness narratives from two literary works: Tolstoy's Ivan Ilych and Margaret Edson's Wit. Our essay demonstrates how the humanities in general and philosophy in particular can inform a more humanistic practice for healthcare trainees and practicing clinicians alike.
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