Empathy is the ability to understand and accept another person’s reality, to accurately perceive feelings, and to communicate your understanding with the other party involved. Empathy is also the cornerstone of any healthcare profession.

To express empathy, healthcare professionals need to reflect and understand what a patient is trying to say. This goes beyond just hearing what the patient is saying and reading in between the lines at an emotive level. Such empathic understanding requires you to be both sensitive and imaginative, especially if you have not had similar experiences.

But what about sympathy then? Empathy and sympathy are practically two sides of the same coin. But is there really a difference between the both? Simply put, yes, there is a difference, and understanding these subtle distinctions between both can hone your communication skills as a healthcare professional.

What are the differences between empathy and sympathy?

Empathy vs. Sympathy
Empathy vs. Sympathy

Being empathetic is to really put yourself in the other person’s position and to be able to genuinely feel their pain or suffering. Even if you have not gone through the exact experience as the patient, empathy is a deeper feeling that allows you to attentively use your imagination in order to understand, respect, and appreciate your patients’ feelings. Empathy can create more meaningful connections between your patients and yourself, and that in itself is half of what healthcare professionals need to do.

In contrast, the feeling of sympathy develops from the acknowledgment that another person – your patient – is suffering. It is – can – be an honest and genuine feeling. A sympathetic healthcare professional may feel sorry for their patients, or feel pity for them.

So which is the better of the two? As a healthcare professional, ideally, you ought to demonstrate a keen understanding of your patients’ feelings instead of simply showing acknowledging their pain. This in turn, should reflect in the way you talk to your patients as well:

Why empathy over sympathy?

Although healthcare professionals are rarely empathetic in every situation, however, it is an important goal to work towards; a key to unlocking concern and communicating support for your patients. Statements reflecting empathy are highly effective because they tell the person that you have heard them completely. Hence, empathetic statements can communicate non-judgement and understanding, and help establish trust in difficult situations. On the other hand, expressing sympathy can leave your patients feeling that people have taken pity on them, or are feeling sorry for them, which can create a sense of inferiority and disempowerment.

Listening and understanding patients’ problems

When your patient complaints about something, you should be an active listener. Focus and get what the issues are and try to put yourself in their condition. Empathy plays a vital role in healthcare. Knowing how it works would help the patient feel less alone and understood. At some point you will need to put your own opinions and issues away and comforting patients would need to take over as priority. On the other hand, reacting in sympathy can undermine your ability to function as an effective healthcare professional. MIMS

Read more:
Do Singaporean GPs lack empathy?
Empathy helps increase medical knowledge
There, there: Physician empathy soothes patient anxiety