As a medical student, my goal is to learn how to become the best doctor I can be. Being an excellent physician means mastering a large body of knowledge, but just as important is learning to develop strong patient relationships: making patients feel comfortable, earning their trust, and helping to guide them through health and disease.
Empathy is an important part of this process, but it’s also a complex word. Merriam-Webster’s defines it as the following:
“The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”
The way I think we define empathy in common usage is the first half of that definition, i.e. feeling what the patient is feeling. And empathy is set as a goal in medicine. We all hope to be more empathic doctors. In fact, I’ve admired, and seen medical students praised for, crying with patients.
However, since the end of high school, I’ve lost the ability to cry, which begs the question am I less empathic? I think the answer to that question has to be yes. The definition of empathy is feeling what someone else is feeling, and if another student viscerally feels that emotion more strongly than I do, that’s a higher level of empathy. But differing levels of empathy don’t necessarily translate to differences in care. Someone with more or less empathy could be a better or worse listener, counselor, or friend. And so a more important measure of a good healer may be not necessarily empathy (the emotion that the provider feels), but rather the level of care provided as perceived by the patient.
At the very least, this can suffice an amateur anthropologist’s excuse for my not crying in the hospital.