Empathy vs Sympathy: Two Cliffs Connected with A Bridge Filled with Doctors

I have encountered the word “empathy” a lot since I first got into a medical school. First of all, empathy is an understanding process of other people’s subjective experiences by vicariously sharing those experiences but still keep an identity as an observant. (1) “Doctors should be able to set a clear border between empathy and sympathy. Increasing the quality of health care by empathizing patients, not sympathizing them,” is the sentence that I clearly remember is repeated all over again by my doctors. This makes me learn, think, and contemplate myself, I should be a good doctor who can empathize her patients, too! It has almost been 1.5 year since those moments, and I begin to reflect again, “have I been improving? Am I on the right track to be more empathizing rather than sympathizing?”

There are a lot of chances in which my empathy is tested since I got into this medical school. I recently participated in a charity event, in which I gave an education for mothers in rural area about the importance of having early detection of visual acetic acid cervical inspection and how to detect breast abnormal tumor mass. I was really happy that the mothers actively participated in the group discussions and gave several questions to deepen their knowledges towards the two most prevalent cancers in women. However, one of the mother, wanted to meet my friend and I after the discussion privately. Therefore, we met shortly after the group was disbanded.

The mother began to tell us her chief complaint and the history of her sexual health, starting from the fact that he married in such an early age, lost her husband ten years ago, having irregular menstrual cycle, and history of pap smear. I think she wanted to ask more about her sexual health status as we indeed put that having married at an early age and early menopause increase the risk of having cervical and breast cancer. She was indeed worried about that fact and wanted to ask us what she should do to prevent those from happening. Nevertheless, as medical students who have not gone to reproduction module yet (we only had a workshop about IVA and breast cancer), we admitted that we were not clear about her concern and offered her to tell her complaints to the doctor in charge the following week (when the inspection was conducted). The mother agreed and she went to the doctor on the day of the charity event.

It was such an unforgettable experience since I was actually quite sad by the fact that I was not able to answer that mother’s questions properly for I had not learnt and was not clear about it. Nonetheless, hearing her long complaint about her sexual health made me once again think that I still can be a good listener and empathize her albeit I cannot give her any solutions. Consequently, I decided to give my best efforts to everything that I can do at that moment; which was to listen to all my heart and encourage the mother not to lose hope but to seek for doctor’s helps. Furthermore, I was also encouraged by the fact that we should train ourselves about clinical empathy so that we would not have any problems in expressing empathy when we had graduated from medical school.

I imagined myself on her shoes, living life and taking care of two young children alone. Understanding that she was the pillar of the house, I fully understood that she needed to maintain her health well to be able to take care of her children’s health. Therefore, I would take the same decision as her, to have her health checked in that occasion. Nonetheless, what I did in that occasion was just to empathize her, tried to reach and understand her feeling. I set a clear border of not to share her suffering in order to ease her burdens and stopping myself in involving my personal feelings to her stories that can hinder my professionalism and identity as a medical student and aspiring doctor. Nevertheless, I tried to help her by encouraging her in talking to doctor’s and also offered to be a mediator for her to reach the doctor on the following week.

Thus, I think I have improved from the first time I got into the medical school since I also had a similar event when I was in the first year of medical school. I participated in a charity event with my batch, where I took the position of facilitator for families where the event was held. I went to my assigned families and there was a grandmother who lived alone with her daughter-in-law and granddaughter. In that occasion, I was supposed to explain the flow of the charity event. Nonetheless, the grandmother proceeded to cry and tell me stories about her tough lives since her son had gone. Things had been really hard for her since she had to work even though she was already 70 years old to support the family. At that moment, I was really touched by her stories and sad, so I accompanied her and also cried with her.

It was my first experience participating in a charity event. In as much as the fact that it was conducted in the first term of school, my knowledge regarding doctor’s empathy was not deep enough. In this case, I had clearly failed in expressing my empathy towards the grandmother. I involved my feelings to understand the patients’ feelings, pain, and suffering better, rather than knowing the patient better by showing empathy to the patient. (2) Now, I understand that as a physician, I should put myself on patient’s shoes as if I were them, knowing and maintaining our distance but try to reach them. In contrast with sympathy, which causes merging identities of the physicians by involving themselves to feel the same to their sufferings as if I were the sufferer. (3) Nonetheless, I acknowledged my fault and was willing to improve. Therefore, I am really happy to see my improvement in the last charity event, involving the mother from IVA seminar.

All in all, I am proud and eager to continue or even improve my empathy towards people around me so that I can be a better doctor by the time I finish studying in medical school. If I am faced with similar condition in which my empathy is tested, I will firmly hold my principle as a doctor, setting a clear border between empathy and sympathy, and choose to treat the patient with empathy in order to give better quality of health services, rather than involving my personal feelings which is done in sympathy.



  1. Ionnidous F, Konstantikaki V. Empathy and emotional intelligence: what is it really about? International Journal of Caring Sciences. 2008;1(3):118-23.
  2. Lamothe M, Boujut E, Zenasni F, et al. To be or not to be empathic: the combined role of empathic concern and perspective taking in understanding burnout in general practice. BMC Family Practice. 2014;15:15.
  3. Thirioux B, Birault F, Jaafari N. Empathy is a protective factor of burnout in physicians: new neuro-phenomenological hypotheses regarding empathy and sympathy in care relationship. Fornt Psychol. 2016;7: 763.

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