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Empathy versus Sympathy in the Healthcare Workplace

Empathy versus Sympathy in the Healthcare Workplace – Ryan G. PT

Early on in physical therapy school, one of my professors gave a speech on the difference between empathy and sympathy in regard to delivering effective patient care.  This speech held little weight as I was still in school and was focused on studies more than patient care. As I began clinical affiliations, I began to experience empathy and sympathy in the work place, but again really did not think too much of it as I was focused on absorbing as much knowledge from my instructors as possible in the short time frame I was with them.  After graduation and passing the boards, I was able to finally be an autonomous therapist in several settings, but once again the concept passed on years ago was overlooked as I was dealing with the fact that I was now responsible for a multitude of patients.  Finally, after several rotations as a travel therapist, I was acclimated into my life as a Doctor of Physical Therapy, and I began to revisit that speech and all of its knowledge.  With the high volumes of patients we see in an ever-growing patient population, losing sight of a patient’s best interests outside of what is on the surface can be easy.  I have taken the opportunity to write this correspondence in an effort to relate the difference between empathy and sympathy and why this difference is so important to us therapists.

Merriam-webster.com defines sympathy as an “affinity, association, or relationship between persons or things wherein whatever affects one similarly affects the other,” and empathy is defined as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”

One of the main reasons I love physical therapy so much is that we have the ability to help people improve their quality of life and do so with a true person-to-person interaction.  Other professions are in and out of a patient’s visit with little more than a “hello how are you feeling,” but the simple nature of physical or occupational therapy requires that we spend a significant amount of time with the patient. This often builds close relationships where in the difference between sympathy and empathy is so important.  If we feel sorry for our patients because of their condition we are potentially cheating them and depriving them of the respect they deserve. Empathizing with a patient is understanding his condition and using that understanding to empower the patient. This empowerment includes getting the patient onto a viable home exercise program as soon as possible, and not keeping them on for a long duration simply because they may be lonely and enjoy the attention.  Another example includes knowing when and how to push a patient.  Some patients are fighters from the beginning and want to get better ASAP, but others need a little extra push to realize what the human body is capable of achieving.  Again, feeling sorry for the patient because he has numerous personal issues at home and not making him do his full exercises regiment that day cheats the patient of the therapy he needs.  Patients have a right to refuse any care that is offered, but empathizing can help them see the value in a treatment and that maybe refusing is not such a good idea.

I have a limited experience in Physical Therapy as I have only been graduated a year.  My alma mater is known for its practical and manual skills so I feel I was well prepared with the hands on touch needed of any successful therapist, but the experience one gains in the field can never be duplicated in a school setting.  This is evident with the difference between sympathy and empathy in the work place with our patients. Not until working 6 months or so did I start to realize the true value in that speech given.