Academic Medicine

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Academic Medicine:
doi: 10.1097/ACM.0b013e3181b18934

Commentary: The Practice of Empathy

Spiro, Howard MD

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In response to the articles in this issue about measuring physician empathy by Hojat and colleagues, Di Lillo and colleagues, and Kataoka and colleagues, this commentary further explores the concept of empathy. It is posited that empathy is an emotion important to medical care, but it is emphasized that it really doesn’t matter whether empathy is a thought or an emotion. Retaining or enhancing it in medical care givers is worth doing and may be achieved through (1) the selection of medical students and others who will care for the sick, (2) the training caretakers receive, and more fundamentally even, (3) reconsideration of what doctors do in a world so much changed and so diverse.

Empathy is the foundation of patient care, and it should frame the skills of the profession. It may be that empathy can be taught by example, but the minds of students, like soil, must be prepared before they can nourish seeds of knowledge, and in some soils little grows. Physicians must have the time to listen to their patients. Listening can create empathy—if physicians remain open to be moved by the stories they hear. Empathy has always been and will always be among a physician’s most essential tools of practice.

© 2009 Association of American Medical Colleges


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