What is Clinical Empathy?


  • The author thanks Oxford University Press for permission to use material from Halpern J, From Detached Concern to Empathy: Humanizing Medical Practice, Oxford University Press, 2001.

Address correspondence and requests for reprints to Dr. Halpern: Division of Health and Medical Sciences, University of California–Berkeley, 570 University Hall #1190, Berkeley, CA 94720-1190 (e-mail: jhalpern@socrates.berkeley.edu).


Patients seek empathy from their physicians. Medical educators increasingly recognize this need. Yet in seeking to make empathy a reliable professional skill, doctors change the meaning of the term. Outside the field of medicine, empathy is a mode of understanding that specifically involves emotional resonance. In contrast, leading physician educators define empathy as a form of detached cognition. In contrast, this article argues that physicians' emotional attunement greatly serves the cognitive goal of understanding patients' emotions. This has important implications for teaching empathy.