Empathy in healthcare

Empathy like walking in different shoes, shoes that do not belong to you.
They may not fit, you may feel the pinch, it may hurt.
What causes loss of empathy? Is it the bitterness of life?
Like the bitter kola chewed, does the bitterness linger unwashed by the wine?
If there is persistent suffering, does empathy fade?
Do the hard knocks of life create less empathy?
Or is it the environs that creates lack of empathy?

What is empathy?

The ability to understand and share the feelings of another. (Oxford dictionary)

What causes the disconnect?
The inability to identify and understand with another?
Is it the lack of exposure?
Is it compassion fatigue?
Is it poverty?
Is it frustration?
Is it fatigue?
Is it bias?

Empathy is described as multidimensional. In caregiving, sympathy, empathy, and compassion as seen as connected and used interchangeably. Sympathy is the emotional reaction. This could be saying sorry. Or just being present and offering nonjudgmental support. Empathy is the feeling of imagining yourself in the other person’s shoes. Understanding how that person might feel. Compassion is warmth with support.

On a systems level there are 5 domains of empathy,  (1) Approachability 2) Acceptability (3) Availability and accommodation (4) Affordability (5) Appropriateness

In places, where the systems are deficient in any of the 5 domains of empathy, individual caregivers can add tremendous value by exemplifying the tenets of empathy that they can control. Collectively, there becomes a general mood of empathy that becomes infectious across systems.

Studies of new doctors cite, the work environment as eroding empathy values. It is suggested that improving the work environment and providing empathy skills training will improve empathy.

Over time, caregivers may start to feel compassion fatigue and to prevent this, self care is crucial. A self care that creates a balance in the day of providing care. Taking breaks to re-energize and renew. One cannot pour from an empty barrel, so self care is important as is coaching or counseling.

Pointers for self care include but not limited to:

  • Meditation
  • Deep breathing
  • Adequate sleep
  • Adequate nutrition
  • Spending time with loved ones and friends
  • Recreational activities: Vacations, mini getaways, travel
  • Cultural events

How do we connect with empathy?

  • Understanding the need is important to providing empathy.
  • Communication that is effective. Expressing that you are sorry or that you understand the impact of the problem. “I am sorry you are going through this”.
  • Paraphrase the problem to summarize that you understand the need.
  • Avoid passing judgement.
  • Establishing trust. “Let us work together to solve this need”.
  • Education in Empathy skills training

Written by Dr. Onuoha


Moudatsou, M., Stavropoulou, A., Philalithis, A., & Koukouli, S. (2020). The Role of Empathy in Health and Social Care Professionals. Healthcare (Basel, Switzerland)8(1), 26. https://doi.org/10.3390/healthcare8010026

Kerasidou A, Bærøe K, Berger Z, et alThe need for empathetic healthcare systemsJournal of Medical Ethics Published Online First: 24 July 2020. doi: 10.1136/medethics-2019-105921



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