Empathy: Lost or Found in Medical Education?

Sonal Singh, MD

In This Article

Sympathy vs Empathy

We enter medical school with a desire to care for people in need. The challenges we face during clinical training can lead us to become less empathic and more detached from our patients. Derived from the Greek (em-into, pathos-feeling), empathy in the context of healthcare is "a cognitive attribute, which involves an understanding of the inner experiences and perspectives of the patient as a separate individual, combined with a capability to communicate this understanding to the patient.[1]" Although empathy and sympathy are used interchangeably in the context of physician-patient relationships, there are subtle differences.[1] Empathy is the process of developing rapport through the ability to intuit another person's feelings and read nonverbal cues. Whereas sympathy, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, is "a relationship or an affinity between a person in which whatever affects one correspondingly affects the other.[2]" Thus, empathy is "feeling with," whereas sympathy is "feeling into." However, empathy does not imply feeling sorry for our patients. Indeed, many patients respond negatively to sympathy and being "pitied."


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