Empathy Interefering with the Care of Others

Empathy has been named an “essential learning objective” by the American Association of Medical Colleges in there is a special focus on empathy training in medical schools. For the most part, empathy can be useful when it includes all sorts of good things and most of what goes into the name of empathy training in medical school is hard to object to, such as encouraging doctors to listen to patients, to take time with them, and to show respect. It’s only when we think about empathy in a more literal sense (I feel your pain)  that we run into problems.

If, while listening to the grieving mothers raw description of her son’s body at the scene of his death, I were to imagine my own son in his place, I would be incapacitated. My ability to attend to my patient’s psychological needs would be derailed by my own devastating sorrow. Similarly, if I was brought in by ambulance to my local emergency room and required immediate surgery to save my life, I would not want to the trauma surgeon on call to pause to empathize with my pain and suffering.

Similarly, research shows that patients prefer that doctors have compassion, which has boundaries within the empathic spectrum. The spirit of compassion (“let me help you”) allows the doctor to remain objective, calm, and centered. This in turn helps the patients feel safe, secure, and in good hands.

In my next entry, I’ll discuss more about how empathy leads to burnout among psychotherapists.

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