Rescuing Sympathy

November 30, 2009 at 2:24 pm

Female doctor talks to female patient

Commentary by Jack Coulehan, M.D. M.P.H., Professor Emeritus of Preventive Medicine and Fellow, Center for Medical Humanities and Bioethics, Stony Brook University, New York

Many authors who write about empathy in medicine are careful to draw a bright line between sympathy and empathy. For example, Hojat in his excellent survey of research on Empathy in Patient Care, considers the two concepts as almost dichotomous, albeit with a small area of overlap. (1) In this categorization, empathy is a cognitive attribute that allows us to understand the selfhood of another person, or, as Hojat puts it, "the kind and quality of the patient's experiences." (1, p. 12) Alternatively, sympathy is an affective or emotional attribute that plays a somewhat ambiguous, if not detrimental, role in medical practice. The bottom line message is that experiencing too much sympathy for patients distorts the clinician's medical judgment, thus harming the patient; and at the same time causes the clinician to "absorb" too much suffering, thus leading to professional burn-out. Interestingly, these authors seem unconcerned about the question of too little sympathy. Presumably, they agree that clinicians ought to care for their patients, i.e. feel-for or have compassion. Therefore, they must believe that a modest amount of sympathy is essential for patient care, but they never discuss how to develop or maintain sympathy. Their main concern is that it not be confused with empathy.


Empathy is a hard nut to crack because it challenges the conventional medical opinion that thinking is thinking and feeling is feeling and never the twain shall meet. Empathy is a process by which we try to understand other people's experience: how they feel, where they are coming from. To the extent that we accomplish this, we are considered empathic and should score highly on a reliable test of this quality. Thus, empathy is a cognitive process, but the content (the known) includes emotions. To "know" emotions we have to feel them. Jodi Halpern uses the term resonance emotions to describe these feelings generated in the clinician as she practices empathy. (2) She writes, "The special professional skill of clinical empathy is distinguished by the use of this subjective, experiential input for specific, cognitive aims. Empathy has as its goal imagining how it feels to be in another person’s situation." (3)

I speak of "practicing," rather than "having," empathy because I want to focus on the professional skill component, rather than the natural endowment (i.e. more or less hardwired) component. In Howard Spiro's famous essay "What is empathy and can it be taught?" he answers the second question with a qualified "yes." He writes that "a better question might be, 'Can we recover the empathy we once had?'" (4) Arguing that the process of medical education tends to diminish our openness to others' feelings and experience, Spiro believes that enhancing clinical empathy is more of a restoration project, rather than a pedagogical one. Perhaps he overstates the case, but it is clear that medical education tends to narrowly focus students' attention on patients-as-objects, thus down-regulating their receptors for experiencing patients-as-subjects. It can be argued that concepts like detachment, detached concern, and clinical distance describe an unfortunate situation that needs to be remedied, rather than a professional ideal.


What does this have to do with sympathy? I take sympathy to mean an emotional state in which we desire to "feel another person's emotions better" (Hojat's language, 1, p. 11). In clinical medicine this translates to "connect with" another person's suffering. In other words, to have sympathy for a patient is to have genuine care or compassion for that patient. Perhaps it is useful to warn students against submerging themselves in excessive sympathy, but I doubt it. After many years of observing medical students, residents, and senior physicians in practice, I don't believe that over-identification with patients is much of a problem. Some doctors seem not to connect with their patients as persons. In other words, patients don't engage much of a sympathetic response. I suspect these non-sympathetic doctors would also score poorly if they were subjected to an accurate test of clinical empathy. another group of doctors seem genuinely to care for their patients. They have a great deal of sympathy for patients. However, these clinicians appear to have the emotional resilience that allows them to experience sympathetic feelings, but also maintain a clinical perspective. I suspect these sympathizers would also score highly if they were subjected to an accurate test of clinical empathy.

Empathy and Sympathy

This brings me back to the original distinction between empathy and sympathy. I agree that a distinction exists, but I submit that the relationship is more complicated than most writers portray it. In many ways sympathy and empathy parallel one another: sympathetic clinicians tend to work harder at being empathic; unsympathetic doctors tend not to devote much effort to empathy. At the same time, empathy is clearly a cognitive process by which we may approximate an understanding of another's situation and feelings, while sympathy is an emotional state of affirming the other person while experiencing something of his or her suffering.

Concluding Thoughts

Let me conclude with the following observations:
1. Empathy precedes sympathy. I can't sympathize with a person unless I have some understanding of how he or she feels.
2. Sympathy feeds empathy. My feeling-for a person's suffering makes me more likely to engage that person empathically.
3. Clinicians are more likely to be compromised by having insufficient sympathy than by having excessive sympathy.
4. My use of the term "sympathy" may be somewhat at variance with the way Hojat and others define it. However, I believe that, insofar as the versions are different, my version corresponds better with common usage, while their version, in which sympathy is considered egoistic as opposed to altruistic (1), is somewhat confusing and perhaps a straw man.

1. Hojat M. Empathy in Patient Care. New York, Springer, 2009, pp. 10-15
2. Halpern J. Empathy: Using resonance emotions in the service of curiosity. In: Spiro H et al (Eds.) Empathy and the Practice of Medicine, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1992, pp. 160-73.
3. Halpern J. What is clinical empathy? J Gen Intern Med. 2003; 18: 670-674
4. Spiro H. What is empathy and can it be taught? In: Spiro H et al (Eds.) Empathy and the Practice of Medicine, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1992