Doctors need to develop broader skill of empathy

December 06, 2016

Developing a broader skill of empathy is a more realistic goal for medical students and doctors than urging them to be more compassionate. Writing in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Dr David Jeffrey, an honorary lecturer in palliative medicine at the Centre for Population Health Sciences in Edinburgh, says that 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.

Dr Jeffrey writes that 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. "The central question seems to be how to empathise without becoming overwhelmed and burning out?"

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.

Dr Jeffrey suggests a broad model of empathy, which could replace the vaguer concepts of sympathy and compassion. This, he says, would enable improvements in patient care, psycho-social research and medical education.

"Empathy starts with curiosity and imagination", writes Dr Jeffrey. "Doctors need to imagine being the patient undergoing the patient's experience, rather than imagining themselves undergoing the patient's experience. This more sophisticated approach requires mental flexibility, an ability to regulate one's emotions and to suppress one's own perspective in the patient's interests."
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Empathy, sympathy and compassion in healthcare: Is there a problem? Is there a difference? Does it matter? (DOI: 10.1177/0141076816680120) by David Jeffrey will be published by the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine at 00:05 hrs (UK time) on Wednesday 7 December 2016.

For further information or a copy of the paper please contact:

Rosalind Dewar
Media Office, Royal Society of Medicine
DL: +44 (0) 1580 764713
M: +44 (0) 7785 182732
E: media@rsm.ac.uk

The JRSM is the flagship journal of the Royal Society of Medicine and is published by SAGE. It has full editorial independence from the RSM. It has been published continuously since 1809. Its Editor is Dr Kamran Abbasi.

Sara Miller McCune founded SAGE Publishing in 1965 to support the dissemination of usable knowledge and educate a global community. SAGE is a leading international provider of innovative, high-quality content publishing more than 1000 journals and over 800 new books each year, spanning a wide range of subject areas. A growing selection of library products includes archives, data, case studies and video. SAGE remains majority owned by our founder and after her lifetime will become owned by a charitable trust that secures the company's continued independence. Principal offices are located in Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore, Washington DC and Melbourne.

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