The importance of being empathetic

Empathy (and its manifestation in effective communication) has been described as an essential capacity of physicians, impacting doctor-patient communication, patient engagement in their care, and the effective care of patients as a whole. We know that empathy is essential to maintaining physician emotional and mental well-being, including avoidance of burn-out, depression, and suicide.

And, of course, one of the things that we know is that empathy among medical students declines during the third year of medical school. In the traditional curriculum, that’s the year that students start to take care of patients almost all of the time, as opposed to the first two years in the classroom.  At the time when empathy is perhaps needed the most, both for the students and for their patients, is when they have an increasingly short supply of it.

I was reminded again today that the benefits of empathy are too great for it not to be taken seriously by all of us.  I am a big fan of Eric Barker’s Barking up the Wrong Tree blog and learn something routinely from his weekly emails that I receive.  This morning’s blog/ email?  3 ways that empathy can improve your life.  It was honestly too important and too relevant not to share, especially once three different Tweets were in my timeline this morning discussing aspects of clinical empathy.

The real meat in his blogpost, and that I will not rehash entirely here, is that it is possible to “grow” your empathy muscles- and most of the ways in which this can be done aren’t that difficult or time consuming.  The actions fall into three broad categories:  Listen, meditate (especially loving-kindness, or Metta, meditation), and expose yourself to different ways of living.  New experiences and different ways of living also improve creativity, meaning they also play a significant role in fostering progress and change.

For the parents out there, if you want to foster empathy in your children, it appears you perhaps should give in to their pleas for a dog.  Music lessons and unstructured play time (something that seems to be disappearing) also are important in development, so I am grateful my Mom provided all three of these.

Now, go find a way to hang out with some different people and listen to them.  It’s good for you.

2 thoughts on “The importance of being empathetic

  1. Amalia,

    I always enjoy reading your posts and the personal touch you add to your educational and inspirational message. As a fellow physician, I believe in your topic of empathy wholeheartedly. It is discouraging that our traditional medical training often leaves trainees depleted of much needed empathy. Awareness of the importance of fostering and learning empathy, such as with your post, will continue to be part of the solution.

    As a parent I also hold dearly the 3 ingredients you mentioned and agree that unstructured downtime is not encouraged enough. I have made this a priority for my teenage children and my son in particular has had a significant improvement in his energy and overall outlook.

    All the best!

    1. Sara, I love your “uncontrolled experiment” with your son and free time/ downtime. That speaks loud and clear how beneficial having that space in our calendars and our lives is- even when aren’t teenagers!

      Have a beautiful week.