Empathy (part 1 of 2)

One of the greatest tools a clinician can have is the ability to ‘connect’ with a patient. As a physician you’re given an amazing honor; another human being tells you very intimate details that no one else is privy to: it could be something as an innocuous as a nagging cough to information as grave as thoughts of suicide. Whatever you’re being told, the privilege of having such information, of being able to aid this person with their ailments, is not to be taken lightly and clinicians should strive to realize the full potential of this relationship. Empathy, true empathy, is a tool that can help in achieving this. While I strongly believe in the value of empathy in any patient-physician relationship, unfortunately I feel torn on the debate whether or not it can be taught.

—- Empathy vs. Sympathy —-

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These two terms are often incorrectly interchanged. Sympathy is defined by the acknowledgement of someone else’s suffering, while a person displaying empathy portrays a true understanding of this suffering, sometimes actually experiencing this suffering him/herself. In writing this I realize that the difference is harder to delineate than at first glance; perhaps an example would illuminate my point better. If someone were to tell you they are upset over the recent passing of a loved one—a sympathetic person acknowledges the loss and this person’s grief. “I’m sorry your grandma died,” this person may say, “I’m sorry you’re having such a rough time with it, but at least you had the time with her that you did.” This is in stark contrast to an empathetic person who maybe thinks back to when a loved one has passed away in his/her life. This person not only understands their grief, but feels the sorrow as well. “I’m truly sorry for your loss,” this person would say, “I remember when my grandma died, I was devastated by it. Is there any way I can help you get through this?”

Even though I was taught this in medical school and residency, I did not truly appreciate this delineation until after my surgery. The most common reaction I receive when someone realizes I am a hobbled young adult is one of surprise.[1] No matter the person or situation, surprise is always the first reaction. This surprise can be as overt as someone saying, “Oh” aloud, to something as subtle as an awkward glance that may only last for a millisecond. The next reaction is where people diverge: some obviously do not care or even acknowledge my disability; others respond sympathetically, giving my wife a look that says I’m sorry you’re going through this; then there are those who have an empathetic response as I can almost sense the emotions being conjured in this person.[2] I am not sure if this ability to detect subtle body language is innate or acquired during my medical training, but regardless of its origins, the messages I receive through body language seem magnified after my surgery[3] and the division between sympathy, empathy, and no reaction at all has become painfully clear.

For a great YouTube video on Empathy vs. Sympathy check this out

[1] It is for this reason I like my wife to give a ‘heads up’ to whomever I am to encounter. This way, I figure, the initial element of surprise is at least dulled.

[2] I’m lucky to have a friend who cried when dropping off my family a meal. The ‘luck’ for me is having someone like that in my life. For her, the thought of my situation and ordeal brought her to tears.

[3] Perhaps they were always there, I’m just picking up on them more now. It’s like the consumer in the market for a new car who says, “I didn’t realize how many car commercials there were until I needed a car.” For me, I didn’t realize the signals their body language was giving me until I looked.

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