During my Community Health rotation I remember sitting in a classroom with 30 or so of us discussing counselling and patient interviews and the importance of effective communication and practicing empathy.
Empathy is define as ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of others’ by Oxford Living Dictionaries. This is in contrast to sympathy, which means ‘feelings of pity or sorrow for someone else’s misfortune’ again defined by Oxford.
For most of us, it’s easy to express sympathy, we do it almost everyday…
“I’m sorry you feel that way.”
“I’m sorry that happened to you”
There’s nothing inherently bad with sympathy, but it can hinder communication between you and a person (or you and a patient) in a way that showing empathy wouldn’t have.
I saw this tweet earlier this week, comparing the two and it sparked my interest with learning a bit more about empathy.
Empathy vs Sympathy
some of y’all need to watch this 🗣 pic.twitter.com/VG8C189dmi
— P4P 🎙 (@Paulcito_) April 25, 2019
While reading, I realised that empathy can not only improve personal interactions and relationships but also plays a key role in the patient/physician relationship. In fact, a review said that when physicians show empathy it improves patient outcomes, this echoed the sentiments of almost all my reference sources.
Empathy improves patient outcomes because it facilitates a patient centred approach. Empathy is rooted in listening and understanding, but also removing yourself from the situation so you can be an effective physician. Empathy also increases compliance and adherence along while decreasing malpractice suits.
The notion is, when you have created a safe space and an environment that facilitates trust, patients are more likely to share information with you that they would have otherwise kept to themselves.
Sharing fears and emotions can be daunting, even if your physician asks you “how does this make you feel?” your response, as a patient, will almost entirely depend on how you perceive the physician.
Since there is evidence that shows the benefit of empathy, why are so many doctors perceived to be cold and unempathetic?
Well, some have the school of thought that a detached doctor is a better doctor because they’re a more objective doctor. And that it would be difficult for a physician to be understanding and empathetic with all the patients they see and within the time they see them…
Yet if you ask your friends, family and even yourself, the doctors that you prefer and repeatedly go to are the ones who reduce your anxiety by showing that they have at least some understanding of your view point, feelings and fears.
It is also shown that as medical school goes on, we become less and less empathetic and this quickly translates into how we practice medicine.
During the course of medical school, for many schools empathy has not been the time it truly deserves, but in order to be effective as a physician you must practice it.
The truth is, empathy can be taught and should be written into the curriculum at all levels.
All being said, we cannot give from an empty cup, so while modules focused on empathy must include being able to put away our view point, step into our patient shoes then step back out to see how we can help and make objective decisions… it must focus just as much as improving our own mental strength and ability to replenish and recharge… if not more.
There is benefit to teaching and practicing empathy in medicine (and our daily lives). Medical Student Mazie Tsang wrote an article which really resonated with me and cemented the need for greater teaching of empathy in medical schools.
How do you practice empathy? Let me know below!
Samantha C. Johnson