The practice of medicine is often described as both a science and an art, where knowledge from fields of biology is applied in an approach based on ethics and human values. A cornerstone of this approach is empathy, which is the ability to understand the feelings of another, imagining what it might be like to experience what that person is feeling. Simply put, being empathetic is to see the world in someone else’s eyes or to be in someone else’s shoes.
As a doctor, being empathetic can improve your practice in several ways. By seeing a process (such as rehabilitating from an injury) from the perspective of the patient, the doctor can reveal ways to improve care, which they had only considered from the perspective of the physician (for example, the patient would like to understand the reason behind having to take a whole course of antibiotics instead of finishing when symptoms cease but they don’t feel comfortable asking).
Furthermore, by being empathetic, the doctor can have better understanding of a patient’s concerns and expectations. For example, a patient that wants to lose weight may be concerned after hearing that the steroid treatment they are having may make them put on weight. By understanding this and attempting to share these feelings, the doctor can then consider a different treatment that will lead to greater patient satisfaction.
In order to show empathy, you must first actively listen to a patient. This involves not only open body language that conveys you are interested in what the person has to say, but also expressing your understanding by paraphrasing what the patient has said and saying it back to them. An easy way to do this is to summarise what the patient has said every few minutes. To help understand what the patient is feeling, you can attempt to relate to them. However, it will not always be appropriate to share your own experience, as you must first and foremost be a listener.
It is unreasonable to be expected to be able to relate to every circumstance a patient is in. In scenarios where you do feel that you struggle to imagine what a patient is going through, it can be helpful to not withhold this. For example, in this circumstance, you could say ‘From what you’ve said it sounds like you are experiencing a lot of grief/sadness/uncertainty/etc., I can’t begin to imagine what you are going through’. In these situations, the doctor may wish to seek advice from a senior member of staff. As a prospective medical student, you can develop your empathy and communication skills by undertaking more healthcare experience, be it shadowing a member of the multidisciplinary team on the ward or volunteering at a Hospice.
Example interview question: You are a GP talking to a patient in your surgery that is anxiously waiting test results for a condition they are concerned they might have. How would you approach the situation?
When asked a question like this in a medical school interview, you may want to consider the following points:
- Listen to the patient. Understand what the patient is specifically concerned about, it may be they are worried about how their condition will affect their ability to work, to take part in the hobbies they enjoy, or they are worried they will be a burden to those around them.
- Understand the patient’s expectations. Do they think it is likely that they will be diagnosed? How do they think life would be different for them with this condition?
- By understanding the patient’s perspective, you might be able to relate to them. Has a similar circumstance happened to you or a family member/friend? If so, consider what you were feeling at the time. What emotions did you have? What was important for you to know?
- Paraphrase back to the patient what they have said to show you have taken on board what they have conveyed. Express what you understand to be what they are feeling, identifying their concerns. Show that you know what the patient’s expectations are. If the patient’s expectations are in anyway wrong, you will need to address this.
It’s important not to feel disheartened if you struggle to be empathetic in some situations. Practice applying the framework in the above mock answer in order to begin to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Remember not to neglect this ‘art’ of medicine, as it can be just as necessary as the scientific knowledge.