Empathy in Medicine: What It Is, and How Much We Really Need It

Am J Med. 2020 May;133(5):561-566. doi: 10.1016/j.amjmed.2019.12.012. Epub 2020 Jan 15.


It is acknowledged that empathy plays a critical role in the physician-patient relationship and has a positive impact on health outcomes. However, as the field of empathy expands, the lack of conceptual coherence challenges advances in medicine. In fact, in some medical settings, there is little added theoretical or clinical value in applying the all-encompassing term of empathy, which is by nature multidimensional, interpersonal, and modulated by context. Functional neuroimaging studies of health professionals, designed to examine patterns of brain activation in response to empathy-eliciting situations, bring theoretical clarity to the neurocognitive mechanisms that underlie interpersonal sensitivity, emotional empathy, cognitive empathy, and caring. These components are relatively independent but often interact and are deeply interwoven in the fabric of the brain. Nevertheless, it seems clear from this review that cultivating empathic concern or compassion in today's medicine is more important than other aspects of empathy, like vicariously experiencing and introspecting about patients' emotions. Specific neurobiological mechanisms explain the benefit to patients of their physicians' perceived empathy.

Keywords: Compassion; Empathy; Physician-patient relationship; Social and behavioral neuroscience.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain / physiology
  • Compassion Fatigue / psychology
  • Empathy* / physiology
  • Functional Neuroimaging
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Physicians / psychology