Empathy and healthcare / Guest column

Being mindful of empathy

THE human mind is complex – it has no physical form but we all have one and need it to function in day to day life.

I believe that the mind works in two main modes.

The working mode is the goal-oriented, focussed one that helps us accomplish tasks and make a living. The empathetic mode is what makes relationships survive and nurtures human understanding. It allows one to recognise and feel the emotions of another person, making us happy for those who are happy and worry for those who are in trouble.

Often, both modes don’t work simultaneously and one takes precedence over the other. Clearly, this ability to mask one mode when the other is in function is why many people can keep their work lives separate and distinct from their personal life.jagdish piece pic

For a healthcare professional – a doctor like me, for instance – as the work involves human beings, using both modes becomes very important. When the mind suppresses the empathetic side, a doctor may appear cold or rude. On the flip side, if the doctor gets emotionally worried for the patient it effects the quality of work. This is probably why it is hard for a surgeon to operate on a family member or a loved one.

Finding the right balance between the working mind and an empathetic mind can be difficult. I have often referred to a patient as a “new case” just like I would to a new file. It takes concious effort to remind myself that this new case is a patient who can think and feel just like I do. And that it’s just the matter of a few droplets of bacteria entering my body which can turn me into that new case for some one else.

For an actor, being empathetic is what it’s all about – a profession where the working mode and empathetic mode has to function simultaneously. I realise this when I play a character on stage and am amused when thinking that it was actually my job as an actor to be sad in a particular scene.

Acting is a perfect exercise for clinicians to train themselves and bring empathy into their work. This can help ensure that the patient feels a positive connection with the treating physician which is an important factor in recovery.

If recovery is the end goal of both doctor and patient, an empathetic connection between them can only be good for better health outcomes.


(ENT surgeon, medical device innovator and amateur actor. In 2010 he started a teaching methodology called Medical Theatre)