Empathy is generally defined as the identification with, and understanding of another person’s situation, feelings and motives. While empathy and sympathy are two closely related notions, I believe that the subtle difference between them can be found in the idea of “identification”. For, while sympathy says “I understand how you feel and commiserate with you,” empathy goes a step further and says “I feel what you feel”. Such an ability to project oneself into another’s experience can only be rooted in a love for humanity.
Is it possible for a physician to be scientifically proficient and objective while also being empathetic? Theoretically, yes; but practically, it depends on the physician’s motives for being in the profession. It all goes back to this love for humanity, which Plato associates with a love for the art of medicine. I do not take this “love” to necessarily mean a warm, fuzzy feeling toward patients, nor a wallowing in commiseration with them. Rather, I see it as an ability to suffer long, to be kind, to not parade oneself, and not behave rudely. Most importantly, I take that love to mean seeking the highest good of the patient. Such a love, coupled with the understanding that the art of medicine, as Blumgart puts it, is “the skillful application of scientific knowledge to a particular person,” can be a strong motivation to continually seek both scientific proficiency and a deeper understanding of a patient. This is all the more important that about half of the patients who consult a physician reportedly have no organic disease or only minor disorders. Objectivity and empathy are not mutually exclusive notions in patient care, as long as the highest good of the patient remains the primary goal.