Physician Outlook

In Search of Empathy

Empathy is the ability to be affected by another person’s misfortune and the willingness to sacrifice on their behalf. During the Great Depression, Americans relied on the empathy from others to survive but over the last few decades empathy has been fading away. It’s an acquired trait that needs to be practiced especially in medical schools. During trying times and events people come together through empathy by respecting and supporting each other through the healing process. In this COVID-19 era it is more important than ever to reignite the spirit of empathy in order to be unified in getting through this together.


My parents were children of the Great Depression.  That experience left a mark on them that made them clearly different from my generation and all those that followed.  During the depression years, unless you were one of the rare people with more money than you needed, you were part of a much larger group.  It was made up of people who could never be sure from day to day whether they’d be able to pay the rent or feed the family.  And virtually everyone they knew was living under similar circumstances.  The result was that people were amazingly willing to share what they had. Because of circumstances completely beyond their control, they knew they might be the next ones in need.  They might be the one who would depend on the generosity of people who owed them nothing but yet felt morally bound to help their fellow strugglers.  This ability to be affected by another person’s misfortune and the willingness to sacrifice on their behalf has a name.  It’s called empathy and it seems there was quite a bit of it in the years during the Great Depression and through the war years of the 1940s.


So, it came as a bit of a surprise for me to learn that empathy (at least among Americans) is disappearing and has been for the last several decades.  A study done at the University of Michigan found that there was a decline in empathy among American college students of about 40% over the period from 1979 to 2009.  Even more alarming, a different study found that the decline in empathy was also evident in medical students.  One would hope that if there is a reservoir of empathy somewhere, it would be in the medical schools.  At first, I was a little worried that empathy was on the verge of extinction, like the black rhino.  But fortunately, habitat destruction is not the problem.  You see, empathy is an acquired trait.  All we have to do is get more practice, and much more importantly, teach it to our children.  


All of this brings me to what’s really on my mind today. Over the relatively brief span of my time on this planet, I’ve witnessed a few events that were, to say the very least, scary.  The list includes the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.  Then followed the assassination of President John Kennedy only a year later.  In November of 1979, the American Embassy in Tehran was stormed by a mob of Iranian students.  Fifty-two Americans were held hostage for 444 days before they were finally released and repatriated.  And, of course, there was the hijacking of four American airliners on September 11, 2001 that resulted in the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York, severe damage to the Pentagon, and the deliberate crashing of one of the planes into a field in Stonycreek Township, Pennsylvania.  The combined attacks resulted in 2977 fatalities and over 25,000 injuries making it the single deadliest terrorist attack in human history.  I would never suggest that all Americans agreed on the cause and response to any of these tragedies, but we did have a clear understanding that all Americans were wounded by these events and we understood the importance of respecting and supporting each other through the healing process.


Today, we are in the grips of another attack, and it’s far deadlier than all those other events combined.  Unfortunately our response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been anything but unified.  We’ve allowed partisan politics to overshadow and extinguish our empathy.  We’ve lost sight of the truth that we’re all in this together.  We’ve turned a blind eye to the reality that our defense against this virus is severely limited and that simple, common sense change in our behavior is currently the only way we have to buy some time, limit the number of infected individuals, and develop a more targeted defense.  If we had listened to the objective thinkers (i.e. the scientists) instead of the politicians, we might have had a well-thought-out, unified plan much earlier in the process and there’s a good chance we could have had fewer cases and substantially lower loss of life.  It’s not too late to focus on the greater good.  But to do so, we’ll have to rekindle our spirit of empathy.  There’s no better time than right now. 


To read more of Dr. Randy Cook's blog "The Script Pad" go to Dr. Cook is also host of MD Coaches, LLC's weekly Rx for Success Podcast found at


MD Coaches, LLC is a company dedicated to developing and empowering physicians to realize a greater satisfaction in their roles. Understanding the challenges and operational concerns for both physicians and hospital administrators. MD Coaches utilizes experience and coaching skils to support their physician clients in establishing strategies for positive career progression.

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