Are You Empathetic or Sympathetic?

“After all these years, I’ve realised I’ve been sympathetic and not empathetic towards my patients!” exclaimed our clinical tutor.

Even before day one of med school, the word empathy is drilled into the applicants. Myself included.

But what does it mean to be empathetic? I know it’s an important quality to a doctor. Everyone tells me that. But how do you be empathetic?

According to our tutor and a dictionary, one has to have suffered the same pain, gone through a similar experience, understand the nature of the pain, to be empathetic to the patient.

Thus, by this definition, he said that he’s only been sympathetic to patients and never empathetic.

I don’t agree. Because from this definition, I’ll never be able to empathise to the majority of my future patients! What are the odds of me catching Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, colon cancers, melanomas and GORD in my lifetime? (touch wood)

To me, empathy stems from being able to relate yourself to someone’s suffering. Bringing yourself from your place of comfort and down to the level of the patient’s pain. Not just sitting in the shade as the patient is standing in the rain. Mentally going into the rain and standing with them.

Sympathy on the other hand is seeing other’s suffering, recognising it and saying: “Oh man, you’ve got that rough there!” while thinking thank God that’s not me!

I’d have to admit. Sympathy is a lot easier to practice, and empathy sounds emotionally draining. I don’t think it’d be strategically smart to emotionally empathise with each one of the patients you see. Sometimes even once can drain you dry for the day. This then leads to the question, how do you distance yourself and keep a professional distance while still caring for the patient. I don’t have that answer yet. I’ll leave it for another day to find out.

If you’re a visual/audio person, this video may help to give you a conceptual understanding of the difference between sympathy and empathy.


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