5 Ways to Fill the Clinical Empathy Gap

Empathy, compassion, and patience seem to be in short supply in the examining room, the classroom, and the operating room.

Are you empathic? To find out, take this test.

Empathy, compassion, and patience seem to be in short supply in the examining room, the classroom, and the operating room. Patients increasingly are feeling like their doctors simply don't care and students and trainees feel that the culture of medical education is abusive and counterproductive. What's more, many think it is the reason why unprofessional and disruptive behavior is perpetuated when graduates start practicing.

psychologists define empathy as sensitivity to the emotions, both positive and negative, of other people.

Researchers have determined that people react in one of two ways when faced with another person’s emotions. Sometimes people respond with “empathic concern” or caregiving. They see themselves as a source of comfort or support for the other person. Commentator Diane Rehm talks a lot about empathic caregiving. She admitted recently that she was not good at expressing empathic concern.

Sometimes people feel threatened by the other person’s emotions and focus instead on themselves. They might try to help, to minimize their own discomfort. Typically they distance themselves. Psychologists call this response “empathic distress.” You see a lot of that in entrepreneurs.

Filling the “empathy gap” in medicine will require a multipronged approach.

1. Do a better job of recruiting for empathy. Unfortunately, HR professionals, let alone untrained members of a medical school admissions committee, are conflicted about whether you can identify people with empathy with any validity and whether there is any correlation with job performance in the empathy domains.

2. Change how we think about the “triple threat.” Academics like to think of the best clinical faculty and teachers as those with near perfect diagnostic skills and clinical judgement, flawless technical ability, and Dr. Welby-like compassion and empathy. The reality is that there are very few of those roaming the halls of academia. Did I mention we also want you to be a Nobel-grade research scientist and leader?

3. Recognize that narcissists come with baggage. The pathway to medical school is lined with attaboys and tends to self-select narcissists who have been told how exceptional they are their entire childhood and adolescence. Unfortunately, most narcissists bottom out on the empathy scale.

4. Teach and train medical professionals to be more empathic. The literature seems to indicate teaching empathy to medical students is successful. Others have a hard time even defining it.

5. Rethink how to deal with “the dark underbelly of medicine.” Do angry, hostile, distant, cold, unempathetic, doctors and teachers who demonstrate “disruptive behavior” need to be punished or rehabilitated?

Changing the stripes on a tiger is impossible. Getting a doctor to change his or her own behavior comes close. So, how does that make you feel?