Medical Students Are Losing Touch With Their Own Empathy

Empathy In Medical School

Empathy is the cornerstone of compassionate and effective patient care, though the concept is more often seen as an abstract ideal rather than as a definitive principle of patient-physician interaction.  This topic is frequently at the center of discussions surrounding medical ethics, as it is an ever-evolving human concern that affects both doctors and patients, inside hospital walls and during everyday life.

Given the amount of discourse, it is surprising that empathy and compassion are  topics most doctors don’t recall openly discussing since their ethics class in medical school. Holding onto that fundamental human value appears to be the greatest ongoing challenge every medical student faces during their rigorous journey towards becoming the doctors of tomorrow.

Having already borne witness to the ill effects of apathetic patient care, many physicians and specialists are campaigning around the country to lend their expertise and insight into the subject of empathy in healthcare delivery. The TEDx video series on empathy serves as an intense illustration of the push for empathic patient care awareness.

In this TEDx keynote, Dr. Helen Riess, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Director of the Empathy and Relational Science Program of  Massachusetts General Hospital, lends her expertise on human physiological activity and how it translates into physical expression in patients when consulting with their doctor.

“We have an active research program that seeks to integrate the human aspects of interpersonal interaction at all levels of healthcare with current research on the neurobiology and physiology of emotion, empathy, and the healing relationship.” Empathy and Relational Science Program

Under the leadership of Dr. Riess, the Empathy and Relational Science Program has aimed to enhance patient care and doctor-patient relationships by furthering discovery of the physiological relationship between pain, health, empathy and healing.   

“Some of my training is just about opening your eyes to the perceptive and receptive aspects of the empathy and to the empathic responses.” adds Dr. Helen Riess.

The doctors of tomorrow will be so patient-centric that they’ll be able to recognize the slightest indication or gesture made by the patient, effectively spot-address concerns as they arise, and give more personal care to patients through longer consultations. Humans have a basic need for empathy in order for their interactions to be meaningful and memorable, and data has shown that patients who have been shown empathy during treatment have shorter recovery times when compared to patients who gave lower patient satisfaction ratings.

Current Empathy and Relational Science Program research projects include; non verbal clinician communication, interprofessional communication, and cultural empathy.

“We are examining features of empathy, which may be universal or culture specific, to determine how empathy can be best utilized globally.” Empathy and Relational Science Program

According to 2012 test results, the NCBI found that altruistic ideals and qualities of empathy appear to decrease among some medical students as they progress through their education. During this process, students face increasingly heavy workloads, deal with strenuous demands and become more acquainted with non-humanistic informal practices inherent in the culture of medicine. In combination, these factors increase the likelihood that emotional suppression, detachment from patients, burnout and other negative consequences may result, perhaps as a means of self-preservation. Alternatively, by making a mindful and intentional choice to endeavor for self-care and a healthy work-life balance, medical students can uphold humanistic and prosocial attitudes and behaviors.

“Our inner-experiences and feelings mirror those of others. Our human brains are actually hardwired for empathy because our survival depends on it. We reflect the feelings of others because that is what is required for our survival. We all are here because of mutual aid and cooperation than because of survival of the fittest. If we were only wired for survival of the fittest, we’d be wired to dominate others and to only look out for ourselves, but that’s not how we’re made.” added Dr. Riess

In a health care system where emerging technological alternatives have limited the role of actual human contact, millennial medical students are urged to never lose sight of the human essence. What happens when this innate ability is no longer innate?

Joseph Bryant
  • Thomas yannios m.d.
    Posted at 1:21PM, June 18 2016 Reply

    No offense but what planet is Dr Helen Riess on?
    Oh, I know : the planet Harvard.
    Empathy is being bred out of our children by the current culture and intrusive gov er rnment and out of touch academic intrusions into the practice of medicine are creating a reality of the patient as commodity.So let’s not hear anymore of this laddy-da. Practicing 35 yrs with flesh and blood humans I am horrified by what I see emerging from training programs.

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