Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Empathy is apparently in short supply amongst some health professionals (Morse, 2008).
Its also shown in at least two studies to decrease with successive years of study in becoming a health professional (Haslam, 2007).

To feel heard, to have one's own views acknowledged, to matter... these are all critical components for me as a both recipient and provider of health care. And, as Haslam (2007) identifies , empathy leads to:
Higher patient satisfaction
Greater sense of own wellbeing
Greater sense of accomplishment
Increased treatment adherence
Decreased errors and decreased malpractice claims

In my Faculty, a decision has been made to cut the teaching of therapeutic communication skills from the core curriculum all health professional students take. I concede it does not matter that a student health professional knows the name of the skill, more important is that it be used, and rather than learning it in large classes, and it may well be better taught at the bedside; but will it be?
My anxiety increases with this study reporting its not being shown 90% of the time when opportunities are present. So if its not being consciously taught, and what is unconsciously taught is how to ignore opportunities, then use of empathy is likely to reduce further.

“Emotional support has a protective influence on survival....Not only do people want someone who can ‘be there’ and listen to them,
they are physically better off if they have someone to do this.”
James Pennebaker (1988)

Haslam, H. (2007). Humanising the medical profession. MJA 187 (7): 381-382.
Morse,D., Edwardsen, E., and Gordon, H. (2008). Missed Opportunities for Interval Empathy in Lung Cancer Communication. Arch Intern Med.168(17):1853-1858.


  1. Hi ailsa, sorry to hear that. I think empaty is essential in health care. The problem is that many professionals mistake empathy with "feeling the same as the patient", which probably isn't a good thing. This confusion is the main reason for why empathy should be on the curriculum.

  2. Thanks for your supportive comments Peter. How to manage one's own emotions as well as being useful to the people we might work with is a craft. How it might be maintained without dedicated course content space is still to be negotiated. The risk is that it becomes taught only in serendipitous moments subject to the haphazard reactive spaces of teaching and learning experiences rather than proactively.

  3. Hi Ailsa, one of the Rehab specialists I have worked with described a new 'crime' in health services, ? in NSW only or further afield. Basically it is being too empathic, compassionate, and / or caring.
    I am among the most guily in my department
    Margaret MM

  4. Hello Margaret :) make me happy, stay with compassion, empathy and care. More importantly; respond to what the people you work with need.