Are Doctors Suffering From Compassion Fatigue?

Batya Swift Yasgur, MA, LMSW


December 23, 2013

In This Article

Empathy Deficit: The Reddest Flag

Physicians with compassion fatigue report that they've lost their ability to feel empathetic. "I closed my practice when my empathy reserves were totally depleted," recounts Thalya Davidson, MD, a psychiatrist whose practice was located in Atlantic City, New Jersey. "I was inured to my patients' pain. I kept glancing at the clock during sessions and counting the minutes until they ended."

Even though she had been trained to read other people's emotions, Dr. Davidson was unaware that her own feelings signified compassion fatigue. "All I felt at that time was that I needed to get out of medicine as soon as possible."

What's frequently responsible for the "empathy drain" is "internalizing the pain and traumas of others -- sometimes referred to as 'secondary PTSD,'" states Dr. Levin.

Dr. Davidson couldn't agree more. "My empathy switch was always in the 'on' position, until the battery completely ran out," she recalls. Ultimately, she decided it was better for her mentally (and physically) to retire and leave medicine.

Reclaiming Empathy

"The antidote for compassion fatigue isn't trying to generate more empathy," according to physician and executive coach Drummond. "Some people recommend taking workshops and courses in empathy. But empathy isn't just a skill. It's an organic part of your being."

Ironically, the demand to be empathetic often becomes just another pressure, when pressure is one of the factors that contributed to the downward spiral to begin with. "The effort to become more empathetic will only increase your resentment and sense of burnout," Dr. Drummond says. Because loss of empathy is a symptom of compassion fatigue, addressing the problem at the root will allow empathy to flourish once more.


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