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Can Fam Physician. 2010 October; 56(10): 987–988.
PMCID: PMC2954073

Sensitive to emotional needs

Joel Weinstein, MD CCFP FCFP

I read with interest the debate “Should family physicians be empathetic?”1,2

In my opinion, trying to debate the issue around the definition of empathy, as your authors have done, amounts to more of an attempt to split hairs. I believe that the issue should be focused more on the question of ensuring that family physicians are sensitive to their patients’ emotional needs. I am not sure how to best train physicians to optimize their sensitivity, as so much is determined, I believe, by personal experience.

In my own case, I became a better physician (and person) after experiencing the loss of my spouse 4 years ago to cancer. It brought a sensitivity to others in the same situation that I could not have developed otherwise. Life experiences do give us a wisdom that cannot be obtained academically. This does not mean that we must relive our emotional experiences in dealing with others who are experiencing what we have experienced (although it did help me to achieve appropriate emotional distance by working through my grief with personal therapy), but rather our experiences give a true understanding of what the patient is experiencing (which I believe is as good a definition of empathy as any).

Training residents and medical students, not to mention practising physicians, to be sensitive to patients is a difficult task. Narrative medicine is an excellent way of exposing the life experiences our patients endure, but there is no substitute for personal experience. We should not hesitate to bring our personal experiences to use, being mindful, of course, of not overstepping boundaries.


1. Lussier MT, Richard C. Should family physicians be empathetic? Yes [Debate] Can Fam Physician. 2010;56:740, 742, 744, 746. Eng. (Fr). [PMC free article] [PubMed]
2. Marchand M. Should family physicians be empathetic? No [Debate] Can Fam Physician. 2010;56:741, 743, 745, 747. Eng. (Fr). [PMC free article] [PubMed]

Articles from Canadian Family Physician are provided here courtesy of College of Family Physicians of Canada