The Important Role of Empathy in Medicine

April 10, 2023
As a physician, I’ve had my fair share of moments that remind me why I do what I do. In these moments, I can’t help but remember everything I was taught regarding empathy in medicine. “Put yourself in your patient’s position,” I hear the mentors telling me from my medical school classes a decade ago.
In this post, you’ll find my experience with a patient named Barry, who is a reminder of how powerful it is to practice empathy when interacting with patients, as well as the important roles of empathy in medicine.

Barry’s Story

Wednesday…the most regular of days. I see my first three patients for the day. They are healthy and no one seems too stressed. A young woman needs her gallbladder out. A middle-aged woman is looking to get rid of her varicose veins. An older gentleman needs his prostate out—all run-of-the-mill stuff.

But then, I’m assigned a fourth patient. Barry is an inpatient who has been here for 13 days. He needs a below-the-knee amputation, his sixth surgery in the last two months. He greets me with a smile and good spirits.

All of a sudden, my problems don’t seem to matter anymore. My fountain pen is leaking and my credentialing paperwork is taking forever to get processed. Oh, boo-hoo. This man is living at the hospital, about to lose his leg, and he finds a way to be chipper.

I think about what he’s going through. The pre-op staff knows him by name because he keeps coming down for repeated leg surgery. He’s too unhealthy to be living at home, so he is dealing with hospital inpatient living being told, “You can’t eat anything today, again,” when there wasn’t much else to look forward to in the day other than some tepid, sweaty hospital food. 

To this day, Barry serves as an example for me of just how important empathy is when it comes to the practice of medicine. We always need to be asking ourselves—especially the newer physicians among us—what our patients are thinking, what are they going through, and why does it matter?

The Role of Empathy in Medicine

Role #1: Empathy can console and reassure the patient.

Barry was remarkable because, despite everything, he was so upbeat. Of course, not every patient is like that—I remember Jim, a 56-year-old father of two who had a newly identified brain mass. His kids and wife were at the hospital with him, and you could see the uneasiness in everyone’s eyes. What started with dropping a pen from his hand quickly revealed a brain tumor, possible cancer, and potentially his own mortality in the near future.

“Will I survive today? What happens after this? Will I be around next year? Who’s going to raise my children?” His eyes seemed to ask me these questions, and I gave him my full attention, despite having three other patients in the OR.

I felt like nothing I said could possibly ameliorate the situation. But I had to say something—I’d be remiss to totally ignore the gravity of his situation. 

I ended up saying, “I’m sorry to meet you under these circumstances, Jim, but we are going to get you through today comfortably and safely.” 

It felt like a banal statement, but I hope that it offered some condolence or reassurance that our medical team was there to help him.

Role #2: Empathy can be a source of motivation. 

Some days, the work makes us feel like technicians. Pre-op, put in the IV, intubate, see the next patient, take a break, check on post-op, pre-op next patient, pre-op again, do another tube, etc. It can feel impersonal, like we’re cogs in a wheel. I dare say that no physician is entirely immune to feeling this way.

The best way for me to motivate myself and overcome those feelings is to put myself in my patient’s shoes, and realize that no matter how “rough” my day is, theirs is certainly worse than mine. From there, I feel empowered to finish the job, and in a position to help. I’m well, they are not, and it’s my duty to use my good health to get them back into theirs.

Role #3: Empathy can improve the experience of everyone involved.

Once you assume a patient’s point of view, many other things become clear. To reach the upper echelons of empathy, don’t just think about your patient, but also their family.

Mr. Jones isn’t merely a COPD/heart failure patient, he’s Mrs. Jones’ husband of 44 years. How does she feel? She could be thinking: “Another night in the ED…how many more times will this happen? How unwell is he? Is he closer to death? I’m not sure I can keep doing this. Caring for him on my own has been difficult. How will we pay for this?”

A Note for New Physicians

For the freshly minted physician, it can be tough to devote mind space to the softer side of medicine. You are still learning the ropes, working through differentials, and assimilating yourself into a new system and a new role. Do what you can during those early stages to open your heart, as well as your mind, to see things from your patient’s perspective. As your acumen grows, and the orders and diagnoses become more rote, dig down to find ways to make your patient feel humanized and dignified. Anything you can do to empower your patients and their families will improve their experience. Anyone in the hospital can afford to have their experience improved—as their doctor, it is up to you.

In summary, don’t put empathy on the back burner while you focus on the “hard areas” of medicine. Make it a priority now—you’ll be a better doctor for it.

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By Brian Radvansky, MD

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