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Features / March 22, 2023

Does empathy make a better clinician?

by Alun Rees

Alun Rees channels Atticus Finch to help describe empathy, and contemplates its importance for patient care.

‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’

I first saw the film To Kill a Mockingbird in the Drum cinema in Drumcondra, Dublin. It’s now a Tesco. I remember the line above spoken by Atticus Finch, played by Oscar-winning Gregory Peck.

We are all encouraged to have empathy for others, whether they are patients, clients, customers or colleagues. But what is empathy? How do we know it? How do we show it?

Definitions can help our understanding. In general, ‘sympathy’ is when you share the feelings of another, ‘empathy’ is when you understand the feelings of another but do not necessarily share them.

Sympathy has been in use for six centuries, empathy only since the birth of psychology. 

Showing empathy

There is an opinion that empathy can be, and should be, taught to clinicians or indeed anyone involved in patient care. If so, care must be taken to ensure that they are aware of the risk of sublimation or burying their own feelings.

From my own experiences, I’ve seen individuals who care too much run the risk of losing perspective and burning out. 

Understanding what empathy is, and what it isn’t, makes us better clinicians and better human beings. The ability to understand someone else’s feelings and differentiate between that understanding and our own feelings is essential.

The online world, where the context of communication changes, presents further challenges. It is easy to miss the hints from body language, tone of voice and eye contact. Email and other digital messaging systems sometimes appear to be built for misunderstanding.

During the lockdowns, there was a significant increase in video calls with patients, which has reduced. Yet, clients, who have adapted and adopted video calls with their dentist or, better still, care coordinators, find them a valuable tool. They are time saving, good investments and a boon to communication.

As Stephen Covey wrote, ‘In order to be understood, first seek to understand.’ What he didn’t say is there is no substitute for time, effort and care.