Empathy, learn it & do it

Many a time when doctors, nurses and the medical staff are asked to show empathy towards patients, they are mistaken as to what empathy really means. They try to console the patient, offer them suggestions or advice when this is not at all what empathy means.

Empathy is not about sympathizing with your patients or feeling sorry for them. Instead, it is about placing yourself in the patients shoes and understanding how the patient actually feels and what he or she is going through.

A consultant doctor or nurse cannot exactly feel what the patient is going through unless they try to.

This is why patients complain or are unassisted when doctors say, I can understand what you are going through.

These come off as hollow words, not as empathy. One should be able to understand what is going on in the patients mind to address his concerns properly and to also be able to tailor their treatments and medicines likewise.

It is like feedback you can get from patients without even asking for it.

An article published in the Journal of Advanced Nursing

1 defined empathy as The ability to perceive and reason, as well as the ability to communicate understanding of the other persons feelings and their attached meanings.The article reported low-empathy demonstration by both the nursing staff as well as by doctors during their interaction with patients.

Another article 2- reported that demonstrating empathy with patient’s resulted in patients opening up more to their doctors and talking about their symptoms, concerns and disease in detail. It helps increase the accuracy of physicians diagnosis, and therefore helps patients to receive more information regarding their illness. With this the patient understands their disease better and that increases their compliance and improves the overall quality of life.

This is why empathy should be taught as a part of nurses training and also to doctors in training so that they are able to practice it during their interaction with patients. Integrating this in their training or courses will actually help them realize the importance of demonstrating empathy towards patients and appreciate it as a necessary component of their communication skills,

Another study 3 reported that in patients suffering from a mere cold, physician empathy helped decrease the severity of their illness! This proves how deep human words can penetrate and how a simple gesture can improve a patients general health.

Thus, as doctors, nurses and medical personnel one should practice empathy and work towards making it an essential part of every consultation or interaction with patients. Not only will this improve the overall diagnosis and treatment results, but will also bridge the gap between patient Doctor communication that is sometimes complained about.

1.Reynolds WJ, Scott B. Do nurses and other professional helpers normally display much empathy?. Journal of advanced nursing. 2000 Jan 1;31 (1): 226-34.

2.Neumann M, Edelhäuser F, Tauschel D, Fischer MR, Wirtz M, Woopen C, Haramati A, Scheffer C. Empathy decline and its reasons: a systematic review of studies with medical students and residents. Academic medicine. 2011 Aug 1 86 (8): 996-1009.

3.Fields SK, Hojat M, Gonnella JS, Mangione S, Kane G, Magee M. Comparisons of nurses and physicians on an operational measure of empathy. Evaluation & the health professions. 2004 Mar 1 27 (1): 80-94.

Written by Dr. Aref Alabed ,