During a recent PW Podcast episode, we spoke with micro- and plastic surgeon Minas Chrysopoulo, MD, FACS, who is also the founder of Toliman Health and author of the PW feature article “Empathy, The Best Medicine?” Following is a summary of that interview:

What role does empathy play in shared decision making in the clinic?

I think, by definition, shared decision making involves empathy because it treats the patient as an equal in the collaboration of getting to a final treatment decision or recommendation, which you can’t have without incorporating the patient’s preferences and values. As a clini- cian, you may not agree with their position, but you have to at least understand it and take that into account.

While sympathy is sharing the feelings of another, empathy is understanding the feelings of another without necessarily sharing those same feelings. Patients do not need their physician to share their same feeling, but they do want their physician to understand.

I think empathy is innate, or at least there’s an element to it that is, that falls under emotional intelligence. Some people can walk into a room and sense that something’s amiss, whereas others can be oblivious to their surroundings in general. And I don’t think it was part of medical school experiences or education to be empathetic, at least for me. But I think it’s something clinicians can work on if they’re not, by nature, an empa- thetic person, through patient experiences and their own awareness of the need to be empa- thetic. And as a student, if you recognize the importance of empathy and align yourself with mentors and teachers that are, by nature, more empathetic and recognize it, I think that will put us in a better place moving forward. And, if those working in academia who pass on knowl- edge and train others recognize the importance of empathy, that’s a big help in addressing the gaps in empathy not being part of training.

I think cultural awareness plays into one’s ability to be empathetic as a physician, because that’s such an important part of a patient’s background; their thinking is severely influ- enced by their culture, relationship with their family, their caregiver, their support structure, etc. The entire physician interaction is going to vary based on geography and culture. Clini- cians have to be aware of those things and adjust accordingly.

We get caught up with the disease process and treatments and our expertise, but if we remem- ber that the shoe can be on the other foot any time—and ask ourselves, just as some patients ask us, what would you do if this were your wife, mom, or sister—that’s a good way to look at things. When you’re trying to marry up patient preferences with treatment options, I think that approach is always going to keep you honest.