Can Empathy Be Taught?

As medical students, we are taught to examine patients, recognize symptoms, and treat diagnoses. We get lost in the sea of differential diagnoses and worries of exams. I always worried that I’ll never remember all the important facts, that I’ll miss an important sign or symptom or forget an essential part of treatment in an emergency situation. When I faced my real-life patients, I realized that I was indeed not ready. Surprisingly though, it wasn’t the lack of theoretical or practical knowledge that worried me anymore, but the fact that each patient required a different approach. Some patients are serious and to the point, others are full of witty remarks about not only their condition, but all sorts of topics. Some don’t want to know much about what’s happening to them, while others have countless questions. Their behavior might be a part of their usual personality, or it could be changed because they have found themselves in a new, often scary situation. I wanted to, had to, understand why each of my patients acted and thought the way they did, so that I could adapt my manner, make them more comfortable, find out more information, and finally, earn their trust.

In observing my seniors, doctors with years or decades of experience, I have noticed their style of communication with patients comes from every part of the spectrum. Some are empathetic and communicative, dedicating a large portion of their time to their patients; others are introverted, avoid communication with patients at all costs, or can even be patronizing and show little understanding.

In the past, medical education focused primarily on academic knowledge and practical skills. Today, however, the importance of doctors’ communication skills has obviously been recognized and integrated in our education. But can empathy be taught?

We can learn to shake a patient’s hand, to ask for permission before examining them, to perform other small actions that take little effort but make our patients much more comfortable. In order to better understand our patients, to get them to open up more easily and reveal parts of their medical history they would otherwise conceal, to treat them in the most individual manner possible, we need to empathize with them. I’ve seen my colleagues to whom this comes naturally, but I’ve also seen others whose attempts at empathy take a lot of effort and energy.

Because I am at the very beginning of my medical career, I realize my point of view might be naive. Still, at this point I believe I should focus on each patient. I should empathize and understand each individual fully before attempting to tend to his or her troubles, however much energy that takes. I am also worried about the possibility that this ability can be lost. I often wonder if the more reserved senior doctors have always been that way, or if their energy and will to empathize have been lost after seeing innumerable patients.

I don’t know if empathy can be taught in classes, but I do believe everyone can develop it. Unfortunately, I think the ability to empathize can also be lost. Ultimately, this social dimension of medicine remains different for each health professional, and their ability or will to empathize remains their choice, depending on how they choose to integrate their theoretical knowledge and experience with their personality.

Featured image:
empathy by Sean MacEntee

Marija Kusulja

Marija Kusulja is a graduate of the University of Zagreb, School of Medicine in Croatia and a medical intern at the Zagreb Institute of Emergency Medicine.

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