Sympathy and empathy are not the same.  They are often confused.  The difference is......upon whom are we focusing.  Empathy is understanding the feelings of another being.  Sympathy is the activation of your own emotions in response to another being.  The issue is that empathy is about that other person and sympathy is about you.  In healthcare we can get in trouble when we allow our personal "stuff" to muddy our judgement.  Although a compassionate doctor may emotionally resonate with a patient, the important issue is to understand the patients feelings and not allow our own to get in the way.  The confusion between empathy and sympathy has very unfortunately led to justifying a cold disconnected approach with the excuse of lack of time and danger to self.  That is wrong and results in bad medicine.  --Dave

Thank you for your comments below,  Kathy.  I think you are spot on.
Kathy Church
10/23/2012 04:37:41 pm

I agree that physicians often confuse sympathy with empathy, and use it as an excuse for a cold, disconnected approch with the excuse of "maintaining boundaries." Perhaps they're not trained to know the difference (or perhaps they no longer care). But it is very important to understand the difference because it's true that healthcare professionals can get into trouble when they allow their personal "stuff" to cloud their judgement. Patients suffer for it. When healthcare professionals confuse sympathy for empathy, they tend to project their own "stuff" onto a patient, which is easy to do in the depersonalized setting of a hospital or clinic. Patients are stripped of their clothes and jewelry, which can be strong indicators of socioeconomic status and lifestyle choices. The patient too easily becomes a blank canvas onto which the sympathetic (but not empathetic) physician can project his or her own issues. If a healthcare professional has a bias which she isn't aware of, it's all too easy for her to project that bias onto a patient without even realizing it. Healthcare professionals need to be aware of the potential for projection; and learn to recognize and respect the individuality and unique life experiences of each patient.
I have a chronic illness and I'm so tired of physicians making assumptions about me that have absolutely nothing to do with me or the way I live. It's becoming increasingly more obvious that they're just projecting their own "stuff" onto me. Patients are not blank slates onto which doctors can project their biases. We're unique individuals who want to be treated with respect, compassion, and empathy. We don't need sympathy.


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