What is the difference between empathy and sympathy?

Medical School Interviews · October 10, 2019 Miss Samiyah Saghir

Samiyah is currently a medical student at King's College London. She also works as an interview coach for theMSAG and has helped many students with her personal statement reviews.

Empathy vs sympathy

Empathy and sympathy are two words you hear bounded around plenty but what do they each mean and how are they different from one another? This is something which confuses a lot of people and they are often used interchangeably. The reason for this is that they both deal with an individual’s ability to understand the feelings and emotions of another.

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The google definition seems like a good place to start in our understanding of these words.

Sympathy entered the English language first and is defined as ‘feelings of pity and sorry for someone else’s misfortune’. Empathy is defined as ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of someone else’.

Pretty similar sounding huh?

In simple terms, sympathy is when you can understand and recognise someone’s sadness whereas empathy is to understand someone’s feelings as if you were experiencing it yourself. Whilst both of these are useful qualities to have, empathy goes deeper as you can feel what they are feeling and draw on your own personal experience.

To feel empathy is to really understand someone’s feelings of sorrow. Sympathy in the context of medicine can make the person feel pitied as opposed to fully understood and so this can make the doctor-patient relationship more one-sided. For this reason, empathy is more valuable in medicine and is essential for doctors in getting the best outcome for their patients.

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So why is empathy such a buzzword in medicine?

Being able to empathise with patients is essential to being a good doctor. It enables you to see the patient as a whole – all their concerns and issues that they are going through and helps you provide them with holistic care – another buzzword in medicine. It is the difference between being like Dr House to being like Dr Shepherd.

When you show empathy to your patients, it means they are more likely to feel understood and so emotionally connected to you as the doctor. This is important for a number of reasons; it makes for a better doctor-patient relationship meaning the patient will have a better experience and leave happy, the patient is also more likely to divulge sensitive information which they may not have felt comfortable doing before and this can be vital in ensuring the treatment you are providing is the best it can be for the patient. Patients are also more likely to listen to the doctor and follow treatment plans if they feel that you have fully listened to them and that you understand their individual concerns.

So how do you go about showing empathy?

This is something which comes naturally to most people for the most part, however there are things you can do to enhance this. Showing the patient that you are actively listening through non-verbal communication is a great way to show empathy before you have even said anything. Nodding at appropriate times and maintaining eye contact are simple examples of this which I am sure many of you do already! To build on this, try matching the patients tone of voice and language and ensure that you do not make the conversation about you.

Emphasising the importance of empathy

As you can see from this whole post, sympathy and empathy are incredibly important qualities to have and as prospective medical students and future doctors, these are qualities we should be nurturing and developing all the time. We as doctors have the incredible privilege of being present for often pivotal moments in patients’ lives, they are often at their most vulnerable and they open themselves up to us in ways they would not to others. In exchange for this, we need to treat them with the respect and provide them with the treatment that they deserve and empathising with them is integral to doing this.

We hope you find this blog post helpful, and don't hesitate to contact us at hello@themsag.com if you have any questions.






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