Compassion Corner: Compassion, Empathy, Sympathy, and Control in a Clinical Setting

Compassion [kuhmpash-uhn] noun
A feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.

Compassion Corner is a new weekly series from Patient Worthy that will focus on the subject of compassion in the healthcare and rare disease space. In this series, we explore the role of compassion in this field and what it means for caregivers, patients, and others.



The value of compassion, empathy, and control in the clinic has long been debated. For the past decade, however, patients and their families, as well as policymakers, have increasingly recognized the importance of compassionate care.

A 2019 study on PubMed notes that the role of compassionate care is especially valuable in palliative care which generally does not advocate for a cure.

Palliative care is designed around the patient’s needs, not on the patient’s prognosis. It provides relief during a serious illness by a team of doctors and specialists working together with the patient’s physicians. The team provides an additional layer of specialized support. Palliative care may also be added to curative treatment.

Somewhat Alike But Somehow Different

Healthcare professionals often use compassion, empathy, and sympathy interchangeably yet there are significant differences. Most patients in the 2019 study felt that sympathy was unhelpful but compassion and empathy appeared to be welcomed by the patients. A majority of patients had a preference for compassion based on its actionable component.

Merriam-Webster defines compassion as sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.

Whereas emotion researchers define empathy as the ability to sense the emotions of others as well as the ability to imagine what they are thinking. Note the lack of a ‘desire to act’.

One of the keys to the emotional aspect in the clinic is a true understanding of the patient’s perception of empathy, compassion, and sympathy.

A Matter of Control

In 2003 study on PubMed focused on the role of physicians and their patients in establishing control, either shared control or doctor control, in their doctor-patient relationship.

Effective communication comes under the heading of quality healthcare and somewhere under a subheading we find how or who establishes control.

The 2003 PubMed article examines how preferences for patient and/or doctor control affect communication.

About the Study

Twenty general and internal medicine physicians participated in the study along with one 135 patients.

The groups were divided into ten doctor-centered physicians and ten patient-centered physicians, each assigned to between five to eight patients. The patient groups were further divided into half the patients preferring shared control and half preferring doctor control.

The consultations were identified by either physician/patient partnership-building or active participation by patients.

The Results

The group of patients that expressed their opinions, questions, and concerns were definitely more in favor of shared control than the patients who accepted doctor control.

There was no indication that the doctors related partnership building with control. There was a trend however to more partnership building with their male patients.

In general, about one-third of doctors’ partnership building resulted from patients’ active participation.

In conclusion, communication appears to be influenced by patient-doctor control and behavior. An increase in either one results in an increase in the other.

Rose Duesterwald

Rose Duesterwald

Rose became acquainted with Patient Worthy after her husband was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) six years ago. During this period of partial remission, Rose researched investigational drugs to be prepared in the event of a relapse. Her husband died February 12, 2021 with a rare and unexplained occurrence of liver cancer possibly unrelated to AML.

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on print
Share on email