Has Your Medical Practice Lost Its Empathy? Here Is How To Regain It


Empathy, of course, is an important part of what we do. Right? I mean, how else could we restore health, help children reach their full potential and cure them if it is not with some sort of empathy?

In my last post, I talked about how empathy was part of our practice’s core values but that from time to time, we forget to have it.

We start out with it, but we either get comfortable, annoyed, caught up in the day-to-day that we tend to forget why we do what we do in the first. place.

So how do we regain the empathy we once had?

Joanna, my better half, wanted to re-ignite our empathy at our practice. But she didn’t just want to preach it. She wanted something more practical that would resonate with our team members.

She gave each of our 10 employees (including the 2 other providers), a question to answer. Here is small sample of some of the questions.

  • Think about how you would feel if your child’s teacher calls you in because she want to talk to you about YOUR child without knowing what it is about. Describe to us what would go through your mind in the hours leading up to the meeting.
  • Think about the time you were up all night. Now think about how you felt the morning after. Did you feel good, ready to take on the world? Where you in a peppy mood? Or were you a little more irritated than usual, moody and with less patiences? Share with us your feelings.
  • Think about the time when close family member was waiting for potentially unpleasant news, like results on a biopsy or a MRI. Describe to us your feelings, your mood, your thoughts or what came to mind during the time you were waiting to get the news. How did you feel? What made the wait worse?
  • Think about the a time you were in a restaurant, and you sat at your table for more than a reasonable amount of time without the server coming over to check on you, take your order, give you the daily specials or acknowledge your presence in any kind of way. What goes through your mind when something like that happens? 

Each person was asked to respond to their own question and to give us their thoughts. Joanna didn’t let them off the hook easy. She probed and asked follow up questions in an effort to unpack each person’s feelings. All staff members expressed words like scared, anxious, nervous, apprehensive, uneasy, tired, moody, bored, and impatience, among many, many other adjectives.

Once we went around the room, Joanna started to make the connection. She emphasized that parents that come to see us are in similar situations as the one she asked them to respond to and as a result, have the same feelings the employees described. She also explained that in places where we are not comfortable, we tend to become more anxious, moody, nervous and sometimes angry.

Add to that insomnia or poor sleeping habits, and it is easy to see why people act the way they do. The problem is that our work environment doesn’t give us those types of feelings, thus we have to remind ourselves that for parents, our office is one of those unfamiliar, not-know-what-to-expect kind of places.

More often than not, as people that work day in and day out in a medical environment, we forget that for the parents we serve, our practice is a place of uncertainty. It is a place where we can potentially give bad news.

This is place where even a well-visist, which is supposed to be a good thing, can be an anxiety filled experience. And for parents, the fear of the unknown can be disarming.

And yes, moms (and dads) may not be on their best behavior when they arrive for their am appointment, but we should perhaps give her the benefit of the doubt and remember she was probably up all night and not in the peppiest of moods.

By the way, I’m not suggesting that we excuse foul language, insults, disrespect or anything along those lines. That type of behavior us unacceptable regardless of a parent’s state of mind.

Over the years, people have defined the word empathy differently. According to a Wikipedia article, the definition ranges from caring for other people and having a desire to help them, to experiencing emotions that match another person’s emotions, to knowing what the other person is thinking or feeling, to blurring the line between self and others.

Regardless of which definition you identify with, I think we should stive to find ways not to lose it. Joanna’s exercise  is just one example. For us, it worked. The exercise brought us back on point. For you, however, it might be something else.

That’s fine. But find it and keep it. Because sooner or later, empathy is going to be so rare, that patients will think it is a super power.

I’d love to hear what your thoughts are regarding this. Do you think that this is a worthwhile effort for your practice? Do you agree with me or disagree. If you do disagree, tell me why.


  1. Terrific post, but I think it is important to add that empathy is easier for staff when they feel supported. We try to be very understanding when parents are clearly struggling, but when our staff is mistreated or verbally abused by a parent we make it a point to stand up for them and protect them.


    • I agree. Encouraging empathy does not mean that the staff has to continue accepting unruly or disrespectful parents.

      We’ve had a few incidents where parents have insulted our staff members. The next day, we send a dismissal letter. I’ve even called personally and told the parent that we are not going to tolerate that behavior and that they are not welcome at our practice anymore (of course I tell them the 30 day thing for emergency and so forth)

      We back our staff members and they know we support them.

      But of course, those type of situations are not the norm. The truth is, we could all benefit from reminding ourselves that a little empathy goes a long way in our business.

      Thanks for your comment.



  2. I think this is one of the easiest things to forget once you have been in practice for a while. However, from a parents perspective, this might be the most important factor. We deal with new moms, parents that can’t to see their kids ‘hurt’ by vaccines, or think that a fever of 101F will kill their kids. While we know that the kids are going to be just fine and we tell them, we must realize that perception is stronger than reality. We have to identify with their fears and then reassure them from that standpoint.

    Great post. Of course, I am swiping the method your wife used to get the staff on the same page!


    • You got it Dr. Una… unfortunately though, many people in this profession forget that.

      We do too sometimes. But that is my point. We have to work at it in order to not forget our empathy.

      Oh yes… and you can swipe all you want. Go to town.

      Appreciate the feedback and your perspective on this. Thanks for taking the time to post a comment.