Developing compassion and empathy as a medical student

October 17, 2014

Gap Medics student Angela and her mentor in the pediatric department of Tosamaganga Hospital You have a lot to learn if you are going to medical school. Students spend a lot of time learning anatomy, pharmacology and disease management, but there is much more to being a good doctor than interpreting diagnostic tests, maintaining technical competencies and prescribing treatment. Doctors should understand that patients are more than the illness, injury or disease they were diagnosed with. Becoming a good doctor also means developing compassion, empathy, and excellent interpersonal skills, and that starts in medical school.

Why compassion and empathy are so important in medicine

When patients and their family members come into the hospital, they are dealing with some type of medical condition. Having an illness or injury may cause a variety of feelings, including fear, anxiety, depression and a loss of control.  In some situations, a condition may be terminal, which intensifies certain feelings, such as hopelessness. Patients want to know they are getting the best care, and that is conveyed to them better when their doctor is empathetic and compassionate.

There are several benefits for both patients and doctors when physicians treat their patients with compassion and empathy, including those listed below:

Increased Patient Satisfaction: It is a basic human instinct to want someone to care about you. It makes sense patients want to feel cared about by the doctor who is treating them. Developing compassion as a doctor has benefits for both patients and their doctor. According to the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics at Stoney Brook University, studies have indicated patients who feel they were treated compassionately by their doctor are more satisfied with their care.

Better Patient Outcomes: Studies indicated better patient outcomes for those who felt their doctor treated them with compassion. This included improved control of conditions, such as diabetes, pain and anxiety. Patients who feel they are getting compassionate care have better adherence to prescribed treatment and recommendations, which may explain why outcomes are better.

More Accurate Diagnoses: It might not be surprising that patients benefit from a physician who is compassionate, but there are benefits for the doctor as well. Research concluded that doctors who are compassionate make fewer medical errors and are more accurate with their diagnoses.

Fewer Malpractice Claims: Doctors who treat their patients with compassion often spend more time with patients and educate them on treatments and disease management. In addition, they also listen to their patients’ questions and encourage them to take an active role in their treatment plans. Patients may feel they have a say in what treatment they receive. All of these factors likely decrease malpractice claims.

Developing compassion in medical school

Taking care of people who have an illness can be draining. According to a study published in the Journal of Academic Medicine, research indicated medical students they tested had a decline in compassion and empathy after their first year of med school. But can a decrease in empathy be prevented and can compassion be taught? The answer may be surprising. While some people may naturally be more compassionate than others, it is a trait that can be developed to some extent.

Many medical schools have started to understand the benefits of teaching their students the importance of compassion and are incorporating lessons into their curriculum. Some schools use empathy training modules. Empathy training modules may include taking on the role of a patient in a vulnerable situation to understand what it may feel like.

Students may also have to work through a scenario where they are faced with a difficult situation, such as giving a patient the news of a terminal illness. Med students learn effective communication and appropriate ways to provide support to patients during a difficult time.

As a medical student, take a step back every so often and remind yourself how important compassion and empathy are in helping patients cope with an illness or condition. Med students can become so focused on the science and technical aspects of learning medicine that they forget the human aspect.

Compassion means you are concerned for your patient’s suffering, and there are ways to convey that message through your words, demeanor and actions. Be genuine when you speak with your patients. If you are insincere, most patients will sense it. Treat patients with the same kindness and empathy you would treat a friend.

Keep in mind that patients vary in their need for compassion. Although all patients need a doctor who is empathic and respectful, some patients need more compassion than others. With experience, you will be able to assess each situation and respond appropriately. In addition, don’t forget the power of touch. Every situation is different, but in some instances, a pat on the shoulder or a squeeze of the hand may be appropriate to convey a caring attitude.

Striking the right balance

While being compassionate is an important part of being a good doctor, it is essential for physicians to strike the right balance between empathy and objectivity. Medical students who are just starting out in the field of medicine need to pay particular attention to balancing a caring attitude with becoming too emotionally involved.

Doctors are often advised not to treat their family members. This is because it can be difficult to look at the situation objectively when you are involved emotionally. This can also hold true for doctors who become too attached to their patients. While empathy and caring are good, going overboard can lead to stress and eventually burnout.

As a medical student and later a doctor, you will treat hundreds patients or more. Although you want to provide the best care possible for all of them, sometimes patients do not do well. Patients suffer, and some don’t survive. If you take each situation too personally, you may find yourself with a form of burnout called compassion fatigue. Compassionate fatigue occurs when you care so much, you have trouble dealing with the suffering of others. Symptoms include depression, restlessness and fatigue. By striking a balance, you will find that you can provide better care to the patients with whom you interact.


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Gap Medics provides year-round hospital work experience for people aged 16 and over. Our shadowing placements offer a unique insight into the work of doctors, nurses, midwives and dentists – helping students to focus their career aspirations before embarking upon medical training.