A man talks to a doctor who has his fingers in his ears

Dealing with a Lack of Empathy at a Follow-Up Appointment

Last updated: January 2023

Where was the empathy? I left a recent appointment thinking about this very question. I was completely bewildered by this. I have had peaks and valleys of understanding with this particular specialist, however, when they delivered the plan of action, I felt a complete lack of empathy. I was left wondering why I had spent so much time trying to build a mutually respectful relationship. These efforts felt all for nothing. Here we were again on a different planet or at least a different place of understanding.

Empathy or sympathy?

My disappointment with this experience comes down to the lack of empathetic communication that was expressed during this appointment. The CMA (Canadian Medical Association) articulates that empathy is thought to involve the general understanding of someone’s experiences without having all the solutions. It can often be confused with sympathy which is related to experiencing someone’s emotions. 1

It was important for me to understand the difference between them and understand if was I seeking sympathy or looking for empathy.

I do believe I was looking for empathy and especially better empathetic communication efforts from my asthma specialist. I understand that many things cannot be changed or improved, but I wanted more understanding of what that would mean in the future or even looked like, or some tools on how to navigate those waters. I was certainly left wanting more. I have been trying to think of how this could have been better and perhaps if there had been an acknowledgment that this was going to be a different situation or relationship, this could have gone better or I may have felt more satisfied with the discussion if there was a recognition that our approach was going to be a departure or a new way to go about things.

Why are doctor-patient relationships so complex? I feel like it is an ongoing work in progress, often with 2 steps forward and 1 step back.

What did I do when experiencing a lack of empathy?

In my experience, I had to take a breather, step away from the lack of empathy and focus on the information that was delivered. Was I approaching it from the right lens? I knew that my heart felt one thing but could I look at the situation objectively?

  • Ensure understanding. This is an area in which many things can be lost in translation, in my experience. Either there is an assumption of understanding or one party may feel like there is understanding and the other does not. My lesson learned here was to make sure you speak up and ask questions if there isn’t something that you understand.
  • Acceptance. Experience and process the interaction for what it was and leave it as an experience.
  • Seek alternatives. Is there a change that I can make? Is there a point of view that I need to see to understand?

I would love to hear about your experiences, tips, and suggestions for dealing with a lack of empathy with your asthma care provider.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Asthma.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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