Empathy has been deeply ingrained¬†as “must have” psychic gear for any healthcare practitioner. But have we gotten it wrong, and are we burning out AND making poor medical decisions in the process?

In this episode of Against Medical Advice, Tom, Logan, and I define and distinguish empathy and compassion, building a case against the former in favor of the latter. Based on the work of MIT psychologist Paul Bloom. Read about his work here and here.

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Join the conversation in the comments on the original Facebook Live video:

  • Casey Chenier

    Thank you for putting this into words.

  • Polly

    Pity is the worst. Dispassionate interest works for me.

  • Gayle Cardoza

    Thank you for being the voice of so many healthcare workers. Please continue with the show! incredible work, Dr. Damania. Looking forward to next week!

  • Elizabeth Ann Ciccantelli

    I finally grasped what was said in this video today, and I found an article that may help to get everyone on the same page about this concept. When I was in nursing school, (1983) we were clearly advised to have strong boundaries between empathy and sympathy. I took it very seriously, and at the time was not into meditating, nor did I even really know what mindfulness was until years later when I entered school for massage therapy (1996). Between then, and today I have done a lot of meditation, but never heard compassion described as “mindfulness” until the article I going to post below, but what really saved me was the advise in nursing school because it helped me develop an association between professionalism, ethics, and a strong stance towards cognitive empathy when dealing with patients, but now, after seeing this video, it all goes a step beyond it all. Yes. Yes, and yes.

    Yes..so now I get it. I can say from 30 years of observation in the field that in nursing I see people more often falling into full blown sympathy, and especially because I work in the area of home health where we often care for the same patient and have to consider the entire support system and family unit that patient relies on for ADLs. We are often in the same home 40+ hours a week — some nurses for up to 10 and 15 years a shot, but average is about 3-7 years. I last an average of 18 months before it begins to get a little too close for my “empathy tolerance level” and just my own personal standards concerning ethics. It isn’t easy to leave, because attachment can’t be helped too often.

    Yea yea…I get it now.

    Thanks,
    LizZ

    Anyway, here is the article.
    https://www.mentalhelp.net/blogs/compassion-vs-empathy/

    • Brad Davidson

      Yes, this–I agree with these definitions, and thank you for posting this because to me there is a clear distinction between sympathy and empathy, the former being somewhat useless and toxic and the latter being necessary to execute a professional role in a sustainable, yet humane, fashion

  • LilRed

    Do you think that a shift from acute to preventative care would also shift the incidence of empathy/compassion fatigue?

  • Brad Davidson

    Linguist here–agree with the sentiment, disagree with the operative definitions. Sympathy is feeling what someone else feels, so every time you saw a patient in pain, you’d feel the same pain and you would burn out in about a day. Empathy is recognition that someone else has feelings, but not feeling what they feel. You are talking about the toxic nature (and futility) of sympathy in a medical (or other professional) setting; empathy is not the same thing. I know you’re citing an MIT psych, I’m willing to say: he’s using the terms wrong. Not a huge deal, but again: I’m a linguist, I study doctor patient interactions, and I’m 100% sure that what Maimonides is talking about when he says “let me never see in my patients anything other than a fellow human being in pain,” he was talking about empathy. Happy to talk further, either offline or online.