Empathy: A tool every doctor must possess

No matter what ‘pathy’ you practise, it’s not complete if you have no empathy for your patients


I have an unfulfilled dream—to visit India. My reasons to set off on this journey have evolved. I know the Taj Mahal cannot be missed. And of course, the Ajanta and Ellora Caves at Amravati and the Triupati Balaji Temples would be on my itinerary. As a New Yorker, how could I pass up visiting our sister city—the roiling, boiling megapolis of Mumbai, the Mecca for entertainment, finance and entrepreneurial spirit? I’m confident that Mukesh Ambani would have a spare room for me in his house. From the Himalayas to the beaches of Goa, I have always wanted to travel and be witness to these must-see, must-be places. But now there’s another reason to visit. I no longer have my sights just on your sites.  It’s India’s soul I want to explore. Oh yeah, and the food!

The closeness, even intimacy, I have come to feel toward my Indian-physician colleagues has changed my priorities. Indian ex-pats who now call the U.S. their home, share the philosophies and outlook of their former compatriots. I’d like to experience the culture from which such unique people originated.

Flashback to seven years ago

I was injured in a car accident seven years ago which caused me to make many trips to the operating room. I endured months in a wheelchair and rehabilitation. During this time, more than any of my colleagues and friends, it was my Indian physician colleagues who provided solace and quiet wisdom. They knew the right words, and knew when none were needed. They made the most poignant gestures of support. As fate would have it, my attempt to return to clinical medicine was dashed by the nature of my injuries. It was my Indian physician friends and their families who rose to the occasion, and adopted me into their community.

My non-Indian medical colleagues were far more detached. Their concern and empathy were like the proverbial faulty faucet. Their support started as a mighty torrent, but later sputtered with fits of surging gushes alternating with miserly drips. Their interest finally dried up altogether. When there is nothing my erstwhile colleagues thought they could do, they stopped trying. That was not the case with my Indian friends.

I wrote, at that time, a verse that now framed hangs in my study. “Who are they who Understand? Only my friends from Hindustan!” They took me into their homes. I celebrated their milestones with them. I remained a colleague despite sequestering myself in my basement for three years. Writing. Writing what would become my book, Doctor, Your Patient Will See You Now.  Indians, be they doctors, entrepreneurs or restaurateurs, demonstrated genuine interest in the progress of my writing. They more than others, valued this adventure, and amazingly, so did their children. They shared my trials of searching for a literary agent. They were patient during my diatribes of frustration that writing a book so often occasions. They celebrated with song and dance when I received a publishing contract. Finally, my reality seemed destined to match my dreams. And they were there for all of it.

E for Empathy

It seems only fitting then, that my article today is about medical empathy. I learned about empathy from reading, research and my own background in philosophy and religion. To understand compassion best, it must be experienced. It must be offered. I experienced it most keenly when it was offered by my friends from Bharat. Now, let’s get to work.

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Dr Steven Kussin, M.D. is a physician and author of the prize winning book, Doctor, Your Patient Will See You Now. He is the founder of The Shared Decision Center, writes a column for his town’s weekly newspaper and appears regularly on its local NBC television affiliate. His mission is to empower patients to get all the care that they want.


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