As always, empathy comes highest on any list of desirable traits for doctors.

That’s because empathy for our patients lies at the very heart of our profession.

Without it, nothing makes as much sense.

With it, everything does!

A dictionary defines empathy as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”.

The unwary young intern might interpret this (incorrectly!) to mean that you should suffer and hurt along with your patient.


That isn’t what empathy means.

Empathy is being able to appreciate the other’s feelings – without necessarily succumbing to them yourself.

That’s a tricky distinction.

Take, for example, a patient with advanced, infiltrating cancer. She’s in crippling, constant pain. Depressed and suffering, irritable and restless. All the time.

Your empathy for her does not require that you feel a similar pain.

It does mean, though, that you can IMAGINE how it is to be in her place – and then deal with her, while keeping that in mind.

So if she’s curt and rude with you, don’t get upset. Empathize with her condition.

If you see her always crying, moaning and complaining, don’t brush her away. Empathize with her situation.

And then, you will naturally be driven to do all that you can to help her.

Or your other patients.

It is the human state to want to reach out and help those we feel empathy for.

So developing empathy is the first step. The rest will follow naturally.

Once you can understand and share another’s feelings, you can take the necessary steps to help. Your actions in this direction will be guided by the right motives and purpose.

But there’s a fine line to be aware of – and not cross.

It is easy, in the name of empathy, to imagine that you and your patient are the same… with the same problems and circumstances, pain and suffering.

That will be counter-productive to your role as a doctor.

It’s okay to have that degree of intense empathy for a loved one – your family, friends or anyone else.

But if your empathy interferes with patient care, it will mess with your objectivity, judgment and professionalism.

That is highly undesirable.

Because it will prevent you from doing your best for your patient – as a doctor!

Empathy, like everything else, is good in moderation.

Cross the limit, though, and empathy can be really bad.

However, feelings aren’t always easy to manage or control.

There will be times, if you’re truly empathetic, when you’ll be overwhelmed by a patient’s suffering.

This is more likely if the patient is your favorite.

Or if you’ve been caring for him a long while.

Or when it’s somebody in a special group (like kids, or the mentally challenged, or folks with disabilities).

In these instances, you must paradoxically work hard – to prevent feeling too much empathy.

And shift instead to sympathy.

This lets you indulge your sense of sorrowing and hurting for somebody else… without impairing your own balance, judgment or confidence.

It’s a tricky shift that you’ll have to master – and make repeatedly, over the course of a long, productive medical career.

Remember Lord Tennyson’s “’tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”?

By and large, for an intern it is better to feel empathy than to never have any at all!

Because the lack of empathy removes most of your motivation to become a good doctor.

Just don’t let it overwhelm you.

Be empathic, within reason.

Have you read Dr.Sivasubramanian’s books on the making of a surgeon yet?

Read the other ‘Desirable Traits for Interns‘ here.

Published by DrSivasubramanian

Paediatric Heart Surgeon and Author - http://www.DrSivasubramanian.com

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