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Empathy in Health Care

Why empathy in the doctor-patient relationship is better for everyone

Matt Madd, Flickr, CCL
Source: Matt Madd, Flickr, CCL

Emotions matter in the physician-patient relationship. Expressing them, drawing them out, and assessing them can lead to better outcomes for patients and more meaningful work for physicians and other healthcare professionals.

One approach to the doctor-patient relationship is that of "detached concern." Here, the physician tries to neutralize her own emotions in order to better care for her patient. There are many reasons one might think that this is the best approach. Objectivity is important for diagnosing and treating patients. Emotions can disrupt our thinking. They can be unreliable. And too much emotional involvement can lead to compassion fatigue.

However, there are good reasons to take a different approach, one that gives empathy a significant role. To a degree, physicians should welcome feeling the suffering of their patients. Being emotionally impacted by them, by their fear or helplessness, can be helpful. First, it can generate trust in the patient. If a patient thinks his physician cares for him or is concerned about him, he's more likely to trust her. And a patient that trusts his physician is more likely to follow her advice and plans for treatment.

Second, empathy for one's patient can counteract the emotional irrationality they sometimes experience. A patient who sees how his feelings are not grounded in reality, because he has an emotional connection of this sort with his doctor, may then adopt a new perspective that is more in line with reality.

Third, when a physician suffers along with the patient, the patient is much less likely to feel abandoned. There is a natural tendency to avoid negative emotions in others. Physicians may avoid interacting with patients who have a grim prognosis, or who express negative emotions like fear, anger, sadness, or anxiety. Rather than avoiding such patients, a physician can let those emotions trigger empathy.

Finally, the emotions that come to a physician who helps a patient, and who experiences what the treatment they've prescribed and given really means to them, can be very meaningful and enriching. As Judith Halpern puts it,

"The irony of detachment is that in seeking 'objective reality,' physicians ignore an important source of understanding reality. Through empathy, physicians allow patients' suffering and emotional needs to be real. Ultimately, physicians and patients need each other to face illness in a humane way. By allowing patients to move them emotionally, physicians enable more than the physical repair of bodies; they allow healing to begin" (p. 145).


Most of this is drawn from Jodi Halpern's excellent book, From Detached Concern to Empathy (Oxford University Press, 2001).

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