A week in the Intensive Care Unit: A life lesson in empathy

Katherine Anne Gridley


Katherine Anne Gridley
Fourth Year Medicine (Postgraduate)
University of Queensland

Katherine has an interest in primary care and a passion for emergency medicine. She hopes to pursue a career as an emergency physician, particularly in aeromedical retrieval work.


Empathy and the medical student – Practice makes perfect?

The observation of another person in a particular emotional state has been shown to activate a similar autonomic and somatic response in the observer without the activation of the entire pain matrix, not requiring conscious processing, but able to be controlled or inhibited nonetheless. [2] This effectively means that when we see someone in physical or emotional distress, we too experience at least some aspect of that suffering without it even needing to be in the forefront of our consciousness. As medical students we are constantly told to “practice” being empathetic to patients and family members. What we are really practicing is consciously processing this suffering we unknowingly share with these people in order to develop rapport with them (if not just to impress medical school examiners).

We are taught an almost automated response to this distress, including a myriad of body language and particular phrases, such as “I imagine this must be very difficult for you,” to indicate to a patient that we are aware of the pain they are in. Surveys amongst critical care nurses have shown that gender, position, level of education and years of nursing experience have no significant relationship with the ability of a person to show empathy. [1] Thus it could be said that empathy is less of a skill which can be practiced until perfect, and more of a mindset that makes us as human as the people we treat…