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BMC Med Ethics. 2018 Mar 2;19(1):15. doi: 10.1186/s12910-018-0254-9.

Objectivity applied to embodied subjects in health care and social security medicine: definition of a comprehensive concept of cognitive objectivity and criteria for its application.

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Research Unit, Division of Mental Health and Addiction, Vestfold Hospital Trust, PO Box 2168, NO-3103, T√łnsberg, Norway.
Ansgar University College and Theological Seminary, Fredrik Fransonsvei 4, NO-4635, Kristiansand, Norway.



The article defines a comprehensive concept of cognitive objectivity (CCCO) applied to embodied subjects in health care. The aims of this study were: (1) to specify some necessary conditions for the definition of a CCCO that will allow objective descriptions and assessments in health care, (2) to formulate criteria for application of such a CCCO, and (3) to investigate the usefulness of the criteria in work disability assessments in medical certificates from health care provided for social security purposes.


The study design was based on a philosophical conceptual analysis of objectivity and subjectivity, the phenomenological notions 'embodied subject', 'life-world', 'phenomenological object' and 'empathy', and an interpretation of certificates as texts. The study material consisted of 18 disability assessments from a total collection of 86 medical certificates provided for social security purposes, written in a Norwegian hospital-based mental health clinic.


Four necessary conditions identified for defining a CCCO were: (A) acknowledging the patient's social context and life-world, (B) perceiving patients as cognitive objects providing a variety of meaningful data (clinical, psychometric, and behavioural data - i.e. activities and actions, meaningful expressions and self-reflection), (C) interpreting data in context, and (D) using general epistemological principles. The criteria corresponding to these conditions were: (a) describing the patient's social context and recognizing the patient's perspective, (b) taking into consideration a variety of quantitative and qualitative data drawn from the clinician's perceptions of the patient as embodied subject, (c) being aware of the need to interpret the data in context, and (d) applying epistemological principles (professional expertise, dialogical intersubjectivity, impartiality, accuracy and correctness). Genuine communication is presupposed. These criteria were tested in the work disability assessments of medical certificates. The criteria were useful for understanding both how objectivity fails during work disability assessments and how it can be improved in the writing of certificates.


The article specifies four necessary conditions for the definition of a CCCO in health care and social security medicine and the corresponding criteria for its application. Analysis of the objectivity of work disability assessments in medical certificates for social security confirmed the usefulness of the criteria.


Clinical assessments; Cognitive objectivity; Criteria of objectivity; Epistemology; Interpretation; Intersubjectivity; Ontology; Phenomenology; Professional expertise; Work disability

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