Empathy in Physical and Mental Health Care

Sometimes small things make the biggest difference. One place this applies is in the doctor’s office. New research published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) finds that a few simple gestures of empathy in the doctor’s office greatly impact the outcome of treatment. It’s not that empathy directly impacts physical health. Rather, patients who are treated with empathy are more motivated to follow through with their treatment plan and feel more satisfied with the care they’ve received. Though medical doctors specialize in treating the body, how they approach the patient as a whole has a pronounced impact.

If empathy makes such a difference in physical medicine, imagine its importance in the context of therapy and counseling. A qualified psychotherapist will have the necessary educational and licensing credentials, but effective, sincere and client-centered therapy involves more than knowledge and experience. It involves sincere empathy and compassion on a very human level. We know that compassion is one of the earliest social traits that pre-humans evolved to possess. Compassion and empathy are closely related, and both play large roles in our cultural development, family bonds, and relationships.

“Relationship” is the key word here, and it’s an accurate description of how patients or clients should be able to feel when they meet with a health care professional—both therapists and physicians included. Empathy is an essential component of forming a true human relationship: at the very least, we must recognize and feel for what the other person is going through. In a doctor’s office, this mean that the doctor doesn’t just recognize physical pain or discomfort in its physiological sense, but also in how it impacts that person’s day-to-day life. In therapy, it means recognizing that people are complex, vulnerable and valuable, and that they’re doing the best they know how. Empathy itself doesn’t solve emotional puzzles or cure physical ills, but it’s an essential ingredient in positive, holistic relationships between individuals and care providers of any kind.

© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Amy

    Amy

    January 29th, 2011 at 11:35 AM

    I actually work for an oral surgeon and i try to give as much empathy and understanding to our patients as possible. many times they are nervous and frustrated and I find that small acts of kindness tend to go a long way toward making their experience better.

  • joanna

    joanna

    January 29th, 2011 at 2:00 PM

    this is so true! its always great when the doctor can speak to you with a smile…why, not only a doctor, it feels good when any person is empathetic towards you when you are ill, are injured or are feeling low…maybe it is the human connection that does it…

  • Jessica

    Jessica

    January 29th, 2011 at 2:01 PM

    I think doctors train themselves to keep their emotions in check. Even if a doctor seems like he’s completely stoic, he might be thinking “I want to track down the person that made you like this and break his jaw…”. It wouldn’t look good if your doctor were to start crying when you talked to them or got angry, would it? Don’t think he’s not relating to you, he could well be and just can’t show it. He has to maintain his professionalism.

  • Stacy

    Stacy

    January 29th, 2011 at 5:16 PM

    Think about how much easier it would make life in general if we could all simply wrap our minds around the fact of how much more beautiful life could be if we all treated one another with kindness all of the time. There would be no nervous stomachs about dealing with a cranky boss or supposed friends who will stab you in the back. Just a common understanding of doing unto others- you know the rest. What is so hard about that? And evidently it can improve our health too!

  • MICHAEL

    MICHAEL

    January 29th, 2011 at 8:57 PM

    This sounds like a good thing from a patient’s point of view,but if I’m not wrong,doctors are trained not to actually feel for their patients because then they will have trouble in treating them.They are taught not to be friends with their patients.SO how does all this be from a doctor’s point of view?

  • demi

    demi

    January 30th, 2011 at 2:11 AM

    I had trouble with controlling my anger and my counselor was the best ever in handling the issue.He spoke in such a soft tone and always seemed to understand my view and never forced an idea upon me.
    This is the kind of professional behavior that can really build great reputation for a health-care professional.

  • carrol f

    carrol f

    January 30th, 2011 at 10:03 AM

    Being “on” all of the time is not easy for anyone, much less the health care providers who are getting screwed left and right by medical bills not getting paid and all of the red tape that has been put in place by so many govt run programs. It is enough to frustrate anyone, and unfortunately we all have our bad days when being empathetic is not the easiest emotion to portray.

  • The Nebula

    The Nebula

    January 30th, 2011 at 12:58 PM

    As a doctor, I can tell you that I always try and make my patients happy and try to keep them in good spirits. Because as I believe (and it is a proven fact), treatments actually works better if the person is happy and is away from sad feelings and emotions.

  • bernadette

    bernadette

    January 30th, 2011 at 5:22 PM

    If my doctor just keeps his head buried in my case file and shows no sign of “getting” what I’m telling him, I switch doctors. I had one before that didn’t even make eye contact until you were walking out the door. You can’t make progress with treatment if you don’t even feel heard.

  • Vanessa

    Vanessa

    January 31st, 2011 at 10:59 AM

    I’ve had that experience,bernadette. Its just so much better when any professional,not just a doctor,gives you his attention and hears you and takes your input.

    And not just take your input but also try and incorporate the same in his work!

  • BluBug

    BluBug

    January 31st, 2011 at 9:08 PM

    So what do all the organizations do? There are so many associations for medical practitioners. I believe it is their job to teach simple things like these to their members…?!

  • Paul K.

    Paul K.

    February 1st, 2011 at 11:25 AM

    @The Nebula. As a man who is still nervous about doctors, I thank you for your efforts and wish they all saw it your way. I find that when a doctor actually relates to how I feel, it becomes a lot easier to talk to him. When he’s offhand or silent, I clam up. A poor bedside manner is very intimidating for patients.

  • Hester

    Hester

    February 1st, 2011 at 7:55 PM

    When you look at the whole person, you’ll get to the bottom of the problem much faster. Someone I know hates being touched, but he wants to be near people. When you add in his personality and nature, you’ll probably realize he had abusive parents and that messed up how he treats physical contact.

  • Miek

    Miek

    February 21st, 2011 at 4:08 PM

    Doctors are not trained to cut off their emotions for patients. I’m a doctor and I was teached to be empathic. Because empathy helps the patient so much better than a doctor who is acting on a distance. Now I work as a psychotherapist too and I can clearly see what empathy does on clients, it’s really an ‘attitude’ with a strong effect on clients, because empathy alone can heal people…
    Moreover, being empathic as a doctor or therapist can also give energy to the doctor/ therapist: because a deeper contact (thanks to empathy) enriches both the patient/ client and the person who is empathic.

    And… by the way: empathy is not crying if the patient cries. Because empathy is not te same as identification with the patient. It’s also important that you stay in contact with your own experience, your own feelings, so you can help the patient, by looking, with him, for a new way of thinking/ seeing, feeling afterwards (when the patient is ready for it).

  • Cassie Q

    Cassie Q

    October 10th, 2015 at 11:31 AM

    All effort at empathy helps, starting with physical empathy in the situation. R.D. Laing psychiatrist who spoke against the idea of specifically dileniated “illnesses” — noted the key to effective therapy is empathy – like having a nearby hook and offering to hang up a visitor/patient’s coat. Reciprocal: like expecting to be offered, and saying thank you when accepting a kleenex for a runny nose – alertness to signs of comfort and prompt response. That’s a huge start, suggests the therapist is alert and observing, values sharing in a common physical setting. Other forms of empathy take knowledge of history or situations outside of office – probing can include guesswork, followed by brief trial and error, noting reactions, alert to responses, willing to switch – or ask how this fits with goals, or fears. My disabled brother lived alone as adult. Best helper was older woman who lived alone also – she was able to see from HIS point of view – goal was not just to have activities, but to manage the self care and preparations and energy, to list options or find directions – solitary planning – very different if one has any others living with them.

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