Empathy and Patient-Physician Conflicts

There is increasing evidence that emotionally-engaged physicians have greater therapeutic efficacy. This article poses the question: how can physicians empathize when feeling negatively toward their patients? The author draws on theoretical work, research and clinical studies to suggest some basic skills that physicians can develop to maintain empathy when they are involved in overt conflict with patients or otherwise experience negative feelings toward them.

Observational research shows that physicians miss most opportunities for empathy by restricting attention to facts, rather than to the emotional meanings of patients' words. The author proposes widening our view of empathy to include not only spontaneous emotional attunement, but also a conscious process of cultivating curiosity about another's distinct perspective. Physicians can cultivate an ongoing practice of engaged curiosity. Activities such as writing narratives from the patient's imagined perspective can help physicians develop lasting empathy skills. The author concludes that by reacting with empathy toward patients' unspoken fears and suffering, physicians aid in the healing.