Reflection (Empathy) 2014
I have an idea of what type of doctor I want to be. I am aware this idea will probably change during the course of my studies, as it has for many others before me.
After many doctor visits in the past and during my general practice placement I realise the important role empathy plays in the doctor-patient relationship. I want to be a doctor where empathy plays a big part in my interaction with patients.
In a medical setting, empathy is appreciation of the patient’s emotions and expression of that awareness to the patient. Empathy is believed to significantly influence patient satisfaction, adherence to medical recommendation, clinical outcomes and professional satisfaction (Stepien & Baernstein 2006).
The clinical context of empathy can be expanded and include emotive, moral, cognitive and behavioral dimensions. Even though empathy is important, I cant help but think of it as a double-edged sword. On one hand to have empathy means to understand and appreciate the patients emotions and what he/she is going through. On the other hand, empathy may lead to personal attachment to the patient and this in turn may cause emotional burden. It can also mean that doctors can not make an appropriate judgment and therefore possibly cause further harm than good.
A few studies have shown that empathy declines during medical school (Newton et al. 2000 & Neumann et al. 2011). Therefore it is fair to say that the loss of empathy will impact on patient-doctor relationship and also the healthcare quality.
Now and again I reflect on how I want to help patients by truly understanding where they are coming from and how they feel, putting myself in their shoes (German Einfühlung, from ein- into + Fühlung feeling). At the same time I realize how burdensome and stressful this can be. I begin to think, “would I have the same emotions and feelings towards a sick patient as I would a family member?”. “Am I able to find that boundary and treat patients as patients while having that bit of understanding of the patient emotions and what they are going through?”
In reality I think there must be some form of boundary, and that becoming attached to a patient is not beneficial for both the patient and doctor. The harsh reality is that every patient can not be saved, and this can have a devastating consequence if a doctor becomes too attached. A fine balance is required.
Finally, even if I know what type of doctor I want to be, I wonder what type of doctor I will become.
- Newton, BW, Savidge MA, Barber, L, Cleveland, E, Clardy, J, Beeman, G, Hart, T 2000, ‘Differences in medical students’ empathy’, Academic Medicine, vol. 75, no. 12.
- Stepien, KA & Baernstein, A 2006, ‘Educating for Empathy’, Journal of General Internal Medicine, vol. 21, no. 5, pp. 524-30.