Empathy, the real measure of a doctor

Empathy, the real measure of a doctor
Photo: Ooi Boon Keong
Published: 3:59 AM, March 7, 2013
Updated: 7:50 PM, March 7, 2013
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There is a hug I will never forget. Our twin babies had been born severely premature and had just breathed their last. An obstetrician not involved in their care, who was just walking past, looked in and stopped. We just hugged quietly; no words were needed.

Medical school deans have identified empathy as the most important attribute they look for in potential doctors. In this era of powerful diagnostics and instant information, the relevance of empathy has never been greater. Expensive machines and elegant consultation rooms do not and cannot offer empathy. Only humans can.

Medical schools rigorously look for signs of empathy in candidates, often through psychometric tests but the science is imprecise. The science, though, is increasingly suggesting that empathy can at least partially be taught or unlocked.

Doctors in a University of Chicago study underwent functional brain imaging while watching videos of acupuncture treatment. Compared to controls, the physicians showed significantly less response in the “empathy” regions of the brain and also showed significantly greater activation of areas involved in executive control and self-regulation.


Can empathy be taught then? In one recent study, doctors were randomly put through three 60-minute empathy modules.

The empathy training group showed greater changes in “empathy” scores compared to the control group, and showed greater changes in knowledge of the scientific basis of empathy and in the ability to decode facial expressions of emotion. Three hours was all it took.

The authors hypothesised that “the quality of care in medicine could be improved by integrating the neuroscience of empathy into medical education”.

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