Empathy in Healthcare: Why It’s Needed Now More Than Ever

by | Jul 22, 2020 | Healthcare

Reading Time: 5 minutes

In a world of ever-changing, advanced technology, face-to-face conversation as well as empathy and compassion may be fading away among individuals. However, one place that empathy and compassion must not fade is within the healthcare industry.

In this blog post, we’ll discuss the topic of empathy in healthcare, and the main takeaways from episode 1 of the Smarter Healthcare podcast: Empathy in Healthcare with Chris DeRienzo, MD, MPP. DeRienzo is the author of “Tiny Medicine” a book in which he shares the lessons he’s learned as a neonatologist.


While it may be assumed that healthcare workers are naturally compassionate and empathetic, it’s not always a given. DeRienzo says one valuable topic in the healthcare industry is the fact that often patients are not used to hearing doctors admit that they have made mistakes – something that can go hand-in-hand with the idea of showing empathy and compassion.

I think for far too long in American healthcare it was verboten to talk about errors and mistakes… In healthcare, it’s only when we begin admitting that we are humans and we will make a mistake, even the best provider, one in 10,000 times, one in 100,000 times – we will make a mistake. When you talk about something like medication doses, a big hospital can go through hundreds of thousands of medication doses in a month, and so one out of hundreds of thousands would be 12 people harmed a year, right? So when we acknowledge that we’re going to be human, and even the best human is going to make an error, that offers us an opportunity that other industries have taken advantage of for years, that says, OK, assuming this person is going to make a mistake, what other slices of swiss cheese, to use the reason model of error, can we build to keep that mistake from falling through all the holes, reaching the person and causing harm.”

Technology and AI

Technology is another piece of the healthcare puzzle that many feel has been taking away from the humanity of providers. What is the balance between using technology but also preserving the humanity of caregivers? “We need to return humanity to the practice of medicine and nursing and therapy,” says DeRienzo. “Steve Jobs, when he interviewed in Rolling Stone in the 90s, had this spectacular quote. He said, ‘Technology is nothing. It’s people who we have faith in. And if we give them tools, then people can do wonderful things with them.’ And so, I think that the story of healthcare technology, and specifically EMR technology… has really been one of sucking humanity out of our practice.”

Technology such as AI is largely used throughout hospitals across the globe and in the podcast interview,  DeRienzo explained what he was looking forward to most: “To me, the biggest opportunities that I see within AI in healthcare have to do with moving upstream of an event, and automating processes that don’t need to be done by humans to scale more human time… looking in patterns of someone’s clinical history, their claims history, their prescription history, their lab history – we can find patterns that suggest this bad thing is going to happen, we need to do something now… Combining all of this data that you have to hunt and peck in records for today, on vitals, on labs, on meds, you name it, can serve predictions”

Physician burnout

Another much-discussed aspect of technology in healthcare is whether or not technology was a contributing factor to physician burnout.

“As much as I think technology has contributed to provider burnout, which without question it has, I also think that we can use the same technology to dial back our asks of providers,” says DeRienzo. “We just have to approach it with intentionality. I think that in a universe where core principle one is how are we impacting humans?”

In book, Compassionomics, Stephen Trzeciak, MD, MPH, and Anthony Mazzarelli, MD, JD, MBE, discuss scientific evidence that shows caring makes a difference in healthcare. Mazzarelli proposed the question, can treating patients with medicine and compassion make a measurable difference on the wellbeing of patients and doctors? After extensive research including more than 1,000 scientific abstracts and 250 research papers, both Trzeciak and Mazzarelli found that compassion did in fact make a big difference in the well-being of patients and doctors, resulting in improved patient outcomes and decreased medical costs. Other benefits of compassion include reduced pain, lower blood pressure, and it has been found to alleviate depression and anxiety.

And while compassion has been shown to benefit the patient, it can also benefit healthcare workers by preventing and reducing physician burnout. Trzeciak explained that most medical schools advise students not to get too close to their patients as the high amount of human suffering they’ll witness will most likely take a toll on their physical and mental health, resulting in a higher chance of burnout. However, throughout the research, they found that the opposite was actually true; Connecting with patients and treating patients with empathy and compassion actually provided healthcare providers with more happiness and a sense of “fulfillment.”

“We’ve always heard that burnout crushes compassion. It’s probably more likely that those people with low compassion, those are the ones that are predisposed to burnout,” Trzeciak said. “That human connection — and specifically a compassionate connection — can actually build resilience and resistance to burnout.”


Real human connection in healthcare is important. And, as Chris DeRienzo says in episode 1 of the Smarter Healthcare podcast, healthcare workers can use technology to enhance such connection rather than decreasing it. Trzeciak and Mazzarelli hope that their research will push all medical schools to require compassion in the core curriculum, meaning the topic of compassion and empathy in the healthcare industry is one medical professionals should be thinking about from the very start of their careers.

To listen to the full episode of this podcast and to learn more about Chris DeRienzo, click here.

Empathy in Healthcare - Why it is needed now more than ever

Lindsey Berke

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