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A concerning display of medical indifference: reply to ‘Chronic fatigue syndrome and an illness-focused approach to care: controversy, morality and paradox’


In ‘Chronic fatigue syndrome and an illness-focused approach to care: controversy, morality and paradox’, authors Michael Sharpe and Monica Greco begin by characterising myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) as illness-without-disease. On that basis they ask why patients reject treatments for illness-without-disease, and they answer with a philosophical idea. Whitehead’s ‘bifurcation of nature’, they suggest, still dominates public and professional thinking, and that conceptual confusion leads patients to reject the treatment they need. A great deal has occurred, however, since Whitehead characterised his culture’s confusions 100 years ago. In our time, I suggest, experience is no longer construed as an invalid second cousin of bodily states in philosophy, in medicine or in the culture at large. More importantly, we must evaluate medical explanations before we reach for philosophical alternatives. The National Institutes of Health and the Institute of Medicine have concluded that ME/CFS is, in fact, a biomedical disease, and all US governmental health organisations now agree. Although it would be productive for Sharpe and Greco to state and support their disagreement with the other side of the disease debate, it is no longer tenable, or safe, to ignore the possibility of disease in patients with ME/CFS, or to recommend that clinicians should do so. When we find ourselves in a framework that suggests the possibility of medical need is somehow beside the point for medical providers, it is time to reconsider our conceptual foundations.

  • medical humanities
  • psychiatry
  • medical ethics/bioethics
  • philosophy of medicine/health care
  • health policy

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