Empathy – How Much is Too Much?

The physician-patient relationship is the cornerstone to quality medical care. A key component to this relationship is physician empathy — the ability to understand the patient’s experiences and feelings and view the world from the patient’s perspective. Empathy is so important in this day and age that medical and other health care professional schools are instituting empathy training programs and establishing empathy-related learning objectives. But, a recent study reveals that physicians might benefit from decreasing their empathy response and improve clinical outcomes.

Empathy certainly plays a positive role in interpersonal relationships. In health care, empathy is associated with many positive attributes, including dutifulness, prosocial behavior, moral reasoning, reduced malpractice litigation, improved history taking and physical examination, patient satisfaction, physician satisfaction, improved therapeutic relationships, and overall improved clinical outcomes. Some researchers claim that empathy is always beneficial in medical care and allows physicians to complete clinical tasks more accurately. However, others argue that keeping an emotional distance from patients maintains clinical neutrality. This is especially true in clinical specialties in which practitioners routinely inflict pain or discomfort on their patients, such as surgery.

A study recently published in the journal NeuroImage asserts that emotional regulation skills are critical for physicians, since too much empathy impedes the delivery of quality medical care. They maintain that the repeat exposure to the suffering of others is associated with negative outcomes, including personal distress, compassion fatigue and burnout, all of which lead to poor quality health care and an increased risk of medical errors. If physicians down-regulate their empathy response, it may weaken the negative effects of perceiving the pain of others and free up cognitive resources that are needed for completing clinical tasks.

Empathy is a natural human response with a biological basis and proves that humans are fundamentally altruistic beings that care for others. But, barriers to empathy in health care exist: gender, culture, or clinical specialty. Also, some physicians feel there is not enough time to engage in truly compassionate care, that empathy for patients is too exhausting, or that they do not have the proper skills to engage in empathy.

So far, the data on whether or not empathy is truly advantageous in health care is inconclusive. While a complete lack of empathy is a barrier to quality medical care, so is too much empathy. Physicians and other health care professionals need to maintain an appropriate emotional distance from patients, if only to maintain their own emotional well-being. This so-called “compassionate detachment” does not mean that physicians care less for their patients or do not understand their patients’ perspectives; it means that physicians keep their emotions under control in order to maintain clinical objectivity and personal and professional stability. Some empathy is good, but a lot is not always better.


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Jennifer Gibson, PharmD

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD, is a practicing clinical pharmacist and medical writer/editor with experience in researching and preparing scientific publications, developing public relations materials, creating educational resources and presentations, and editing technical manuscripts. She is the owner of Excalibur Scientific, LLC.
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