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Why Empathy Matters in Medical Care


At its heart, medical practice is about empathy. Mastery of health science concepts and clinical treatment is also crucially important, of course, but empathy—the ability to communicate with someone in a way that creates shared understanding of their feelings without mistaking their feelings for your own—is the bedrock of successful care.

Research has shown that empathetic care may improve health outcomes for patients and lead to reduced feelings of burnout for doctors and other healthcare practitioners. However, research has also shown that medical students’ empathy declines over the course of their medical education. This article looks at why medical empathy matters, how medical education might undermine it, and how aspiring doctors like you can look for MD or post-bacc programs that support it as you pursue your career goals.

What “Empathetic Care” Means

Generally, when medical practitioners talk about empathetic care in medicine, they are talking about developing a productive patient-practitioner relationship based on mutual understanding. This understanding, according to a 2020 paper by a team from the University of Oxford, “motivates feelings of compassion and the desire to help.” Writing in 2020, Dr. Melissa Welby said that expressing empathy as a practitioner “creates an alliance between you and the patient, assuring them that you care about them.”

In empathetic care settings, doctors don’t just capture a list of clinical symptoms and analyze them. They take time to listen to and reflect back patient concerns and feelings, too. Empathetic practitioners also work with patients to develop an evidence-based treatment plan that reflects the patient’s specific needs and life circumstances.

Benefits of Empathetic Practice for Patients and Physicians

A 2020 review of research into empathetic care by researchers from Greece found evidence to support multiple benefits for patients. Patients who received empathetic care were more likely to:

  • Report lower feelings of pain and stress, even during childbirth or cancer treatment
  • Adhere to treatment plans, such as taking medication or attending physical therapy sessions
  • Report higher satisfaction with their care and higher trust in their practitioners

In addition, a 2019 study from England found a relationship between empathetic care and reduced rates of premature death in diabetes patients, while a large 2016 study of primary care in low-income areas in Scotland found that longer, more empathetic primary care consultations could be more cost-effective than shorter ones.

For doctors, practicing empathetic care could be key to reducing the epidemic of physician burnout. A 2017 review in the journal Burnout Research found evidence for a connection between higher rates of empathetic care and lower rates of reported burnout.

How Medical Education Can Reduce Practitioner Empathy

A 2020 analysis of research into empathy in medical students found evidence that students’ empathy seems to decline over the course of the medical school career, although the causes of this decline weren’t clear. An April 2023 meta-analysis aimed to uncover the causes of this decline in empathy. In a summary of the meta-analysis for The Conversation, lead author Jeremy Howick explained that much of the decline in empathy among medical students could be attributed to a “hidden curriculum” that promotes “an unbalanced focus on the biomedical model of disease, which focuses on the body as a machine.”

Other factors that appear to influence medical students’ empathy include stressful workloads and the fact that most medical students are young adults with little experience of being patients themselves. Howick notes that medical students who react to this hidden curriculum by “developing cynicism and becoming emotionally distanced and desensitized” over the course of their training are unlikely to build strong working relationships with patients.

He recommends a range of changes to implement in healthcare education to encourage students to cultivate empathy, active listening, and patient-centered care practices. These include communication skills workshops, role-playing exercises, and real-life patient interactions.

What to Look for When Evaluating a Med School or Post-Bacc

Pre-meds who want to apply to a medical school or post-bacc program that centers empathetic practice may need to do some additional research into each program’s curriculum, faculty, and clinical experience opportunities. Some steps to take can include:

  • Reviewing a medical school’s website, including its mission and values statement, for keywords such as “empathy,” “compassion,” or “patient-centered care”
  • Looking at the program’s curriculum for courses, programs, or rotations that specifically focus on developing patient interaction skills or empathy training
  • Looking at research published by the program’s faculty to determine if they have a particular interest in topics related to empathy, communication skills, or patient-centered care
  • Asking admissions officials about the program’s clinical experience opportunities to understand when they start and how often they involve interactions with real patients
  • Seeking out current or former students via online forums, social media groups, or alumni networks to ask about their experiences with the program in relation to empathy training and compassionate care

Finally, if you’re invited for an interview, you can take the opportunity to ask specific questions about how the program aims to foster empathetic practice along with clinical competence. In addition to giving you a feel for the school’s attitude toward empathetic care, it also demonstrates your commitment to being the kind of practitioner who helps patients feel seen, heard, and valued by their physician.

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