Bioethics Blogs

Invited Guest Post: Healthcare professionals need empathy too!

Written by Angeliki Kerasidou & Ruth Horn, The Ethox Centre, Nuffield Department of Population Health, University of Oxford


Recently, a number of media reports and personal testimonies have drawn attention to the intense physical and emotional stress to which doctors and nurses working in the NHS are exposed on a daily basis. Medical professionals are increasingly reporting feelings of exhaustion, depression, and even suicidal thoughts. Long working hours, decreasing numbers of staff, budget cuts and the lack of time to address patients’ needs are mentioned as some of the contributing factors (Campbell, 2015; The Guardian, 2016). Such factors have been linked with loss of empathy towards patients and, in some cases, with gross failures in their care (Francis, 2013).

We recently argued for the importance of professionals’ emotional wellbeing in the development and exercising of empathy (Kerasidou, Horn, 2016). Empathy is the ability to comprehend another person’s experience, and the capacity to understand the world from their perspective. Feeling empathy towards someone is also what motivates positive action and the desire to help. The beneficial effects of empathy on patient care are well researched. It has been shown to improve adherence to therapy, increase patient satisfaction, decrease medical errors, and lead to fewer malpractice claims (Hickson et al. 2002). However, very little attention has been given to the moral and emotional labour empathy requires from physicians. In order for medical professionals to be able to develop and exercise empathy, they themselves need access to support and the right work conditions to be in place (Eichbaum, 2014).

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.