A new study says that doctors need to develop a broader skill of empathy to imagine the patient’s experience while undergoing treatment, rather than being compassionate and sympathetic.
According to U.S. researchers, developing a broader skill of empathy is a more realistic goal for doctors than urging them to be more compassionate.
“Doctors are at risk not only of personal distress but eventually burnout if their feelings of sympathy and compassion for patients override the more nuanced stance of empathy,” said Dr David Jeffrey from the Centre for Population Health Sciences in Edinburgh.
“Doctors need to imagine being the patient undergoing the patient’s experience, rather than imagining themselves undergoing the patient’s experience. This is more sophisticated approach and requires mental flexibility, an ability to regulate one’s emotions and to suppress one’s own perspective in the patient’s interests,” Jeffrey added.
Current concern about a deficit of empathy in clinical practice is mirrored in medical undergraduate education, where there is some evidence of a decline in empathy as students move through their training.
“Empathy is generally regarded an essential component of the doctor-patient relationship but doctors have always struggled to achieve a balance between empathy and clinical distance,” Dr Jeffrey explained.
Dr Jeffrey suggested a broad model of empathy, which could replace the vaguer concepts of sympathy and compassion, would enable improvements in patient care, psycho-social research and medical education.
“Empathy starts with curiosity and imagination”, writes Dr Jeffrey.