From one human to another: Empathy 101

Empathy is both an interesting and important element of healthcare. Displaying emotions was once taught to be an unacceptable weakness. However, in the ever-evolving field of medicine, empathy makes a healthcare provider stand out in their respective specialty.

I have the unique perspective of working in the field of cancer prevention and interacting with providers and their staff regularly. I am also a colorectal cancer survivor. Therefore, I have now been on the other side of medical care. The lessons I have learned during my own journey have made me better at my job communicating to providers and their staff how to truly reach their patients.


In medicine, empathy is the ability to understand the patient’s situation, perspective, and feelings and to communicate that understanding. There is such a thing as establishing a connection versus conversation. The best providers I’ve encountered have a real connection with their patients, which is more than just a conversation about health.

Such encounters are mutual, with each party contributing. This way, I feel like we are making treatment path decisions together, as a team. When we connect in this manner, I, the patient, become more comfortable and believe that the provider truly cares about me and my health. When true empathy is evident, it also creates a degree of trust.

This trust factor allows me to put in the provider’s hands the suggestions about what’s best for me. I am by no means a training empathy expert, but I am an expert in being a cancer treatment recipient. Here are a few things that healthcare professionals can do to create a true sense of connection while showing empathy for a patient.

Introduce yourself

Introducing who you are and your role on the clinical team is important for a positive care team-patient relationship. It shows your patient that you want them to know exactly who you are and what you’ll be doing to help care for them.

Validate fears, desires, or other concerns

When you validate what your patient says, you’re telling them that you hear and understand their concerns, but you’re not telling them what you think they should do about them. By validating your patient’s feelings, you open the door to learning more about their feelings and experience, and this can improve care.

Listening means assessing and understanding

At some point during patient care — the sooner the better — put down your pen, close the laptop or sleep the computer, and just listen.

Do what you say you’re going to do

We all know that waiting is stressful, especially when you feel vulnerable. Be honest with your patients about when you’ll be back with pain medication, when the next assessment will come and what it will entail, or to provide anything else (like more information or data) that they’ve asked for.

Learn about life outside the hospital

Take a little extra time to connect with your patients in positive ways and build trusting relationships. Patients will feel cared for and be more honest and open with you in return.

Remember that every patient has friends, relatives and a societal role outside the exam room. Be mindful of their desire to resume or continue their normal routine as much as possible.

 I am going to end with a quote that resonates with me and makes all the difference:

“The most powerful skill a clinician can have is genuine empathy. If their eyes are tearing up, you hand them a tissue. It can go a long way. It makes the patient feel as if you are really trying to understand them and that you care.” –Kathleen Bonvicini, executive director of the Institute for Healthcare Communication

 -By Allison Rosen, lead project coordinator in the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at Baylor College of Medicine. Rosen also serves as event director and Baylor’s team captain for the Get Your Rear in Gear 5K, which focuses on raising awareness about colorectal cancer and takes place on Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019.


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