Demonstrating empathy is an essential part of your Medical School interview – but how can you do this? Take a look at our empathy tips, and review these example empathy interview questions and answer guides.

The answer guides to these empathy questions have been put together by medics who have successfully navigated interviews at top Medical Schools.

They’re included in our Mastering the Medical School Interview Guide which you’ll get when you join a Medical School Interview Course. It’s over 220 pages long and has everything you need to ace your interview.

How Would You Define Empathy To Someone Who Doesn’t Know What It Means?

Empathy is understanding another person’s feelings or situation, and imagining what it might be like to experience these things yourself.

Phrases such as “putting yourself in another person’s shoes”, “seeing things through someone else’s eyes”, “imagining their frame of reference” or similar all suggest empathy.

It’s important that you can distinguish empathy from sympathy. The former is deeper and more involved than the latter, which merely acknowledges another person’s problems or feelings.

It involves effective person-to-person communication skills, as well as the ability to understand what another person is feeling. Use examples from your daily life or medical work experience to illustrate when you have shown this or seen it in action.

You can learn more about the difference between sympathy and empathy in this blog.

Common mistakes:

  • Thinking that empathy is just pretending to know how someone is feeling in order to make them feel better about the situation.
  • Believing that being empathetic is an easy way of getting someone to trust you.
  • Thinking that empathy is a skill to be utilised only in professional settings, and not in everyday life.

Why Is Empathy Important in Medicine?

When a healthcare professional tries to imagine things from a patient’s point of view, it can reveal ways to improve the patient’s care which may not have been considered before.

A patient will find it easier to discuss their concerns with somebody who is caring empathetically for them and has taken the time to try to understand what they are going through.

A patient’s feelings, concerns, expectations and ideas are just as important as presenting a physical complaint. By engaging with them, a healthcare professional can better understand the patient and ultimately provide better care.

An empathetic healthcare professional will help to make the patient feel at ease and that they are valued.

Empathy can help to break down the perceived barriers between the patient and the many healthcare professionals they may see.

It makes what can be a daunting and seemingly anonymous environment more comfortable for the patient.

Common mistakes:

  • Not having a good understanding of empathy and/or confusing it with sympathy.
  • Believing that being empathetic means ‘I tick the box of being a nice Doctor’.
  • Thinking too pragmatically. For example, saying that empathy is important because it gives Doctors a good feedback rating.

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Can You Learn Empathy In A Lecture?

Although not the principal medium for learning about empathy, a lecture might offer some insightful points about the effect that being empathetic has on patients.

However, empathy is intrinsically people-based, and the skill of being empathetic is therefore developed over time spent with people in your role as a medical student.

By watching other senior healthcare professionals, you may realise any pitfalls in your own approach to interacting with patients

Common mistakes:

  • Thinking a lecture could give you the stock phrases you need to seem empathetic.
  • Assuming empathy cannot be actively improved upon or learnt about.
  • Viewing empathy as less important than things like anatomy or physiology.

Which Is More Important In Medicine – Being Empathetic Or Being Sympathetic?

Start by outlining a definition of empathy versus sympathy. Discuss what the core duties of a doctor are and why demonstrating both empathy and sympathy are critical skills in the execution of those duties.

Doctors are responsible for delivering the best possible care and outcome for the patient using a combination of academic knowledge, critical reasoning skills and communication (with colleagues, the patient and their family members too).

Crucially, doctors must not cause harm to the patient or perform a medical intervention without informed consent.

Empathy is therefore important because it enables a medical professional to understand how the patient may be feeling, and what the patient may be expecting in terms of clinical outcome. I.e. would an elderly patient find limited mobility an acceptable outcome?

When interventions might be painful or frightening, it encourages the doctor to communicate fully with the patient, explaining the reasons for the intervention, how it will feel, and the risks and dangers of not proceeding with it.

Sympathy is important in how a doctor communicates with a patient. For example, when injecting someone with a needle, a doctor who shows empathy but no sympathy might say:

“This will hurt but it won’t do any lasting damage, so don’t make a fuss.”

A doctor showing both empathy and sympathy would say: “Just to warn you, this might sting a little, but I’ll make it as quick and painless as possible, so try to relax. It’ll be over in a second.”

Once you have explored the interaction between empathy and sympathy in living up to the duties of a doctor (as outlined in Good Medical Practice), you now need to answer the question by saying which one you think is more important.

Or are they both equally important? Are there circumstances in which displaying too much sympathy could be detrimental?

Use your work experience if you can cite an example of when you saw these attributes on show.

Common mistakes:

  • Immediately answering the question without first outlining your definitions of the terms, the angle from which you are approaching the question, and therefore your argument leading up to your conclusion. If you do this, you risk muddying your argument and not following a logical structure.
  • Not thinking beforehand about the difference between the two attributes and how it relates to being a doctor (or any other healthcare professional).

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As A Medical Student On A Hospital Ward Placement, How Would You Explain To A Patient That They Need To Have Another Blood Sample Taken Since The Last Test Has Been Lost?

Put yourself in the shoes of the patient. What might they be worried about?

They have been through a procedure which they may have found uncomfortable and, through no fault of their own, they are now being asked to go through it again. They also might be worried about the privacy issues involved around the loss of their blood sample.

You would need to speak to them clearly and politely, but make it absolutely clear what has happened so they are left in no doubt as to what has occurred. Do not use euphemisms.

Put yourself in their shoes, and listen to their concerns and what they have to say. You might say: “I am very sorry that you need to have more blood taken.”

You could also say: “I can imagine that you are feeling frustrated about this, as you have been waiting for the results.”

And: “Please be reassured that we will not share the results of your test with anyone outside your medical team. I can see it might be worrying that your last test was lost, but we take confidentiality very seriously and will do our absolute best to make sure that this is preserved.”

Common mistakes:

  • Saying things in a curt, impolite or distant manner. This might further frustrate a patient who is already upset.
  • Using euphemisms like ‘a small hiccup’ which might mislead or confuse the patient about what has happened.
  • Blaming other people. Even if it is somebody else’s fault, this will not make the patient feel any better.

Why Should Members Of A Healthcare Team Show Empathy Towards One Another As Well As Towards Their Patients?

Working in healthcare can be very stressful and demanding. Your colleagues may need support from peers who understand this well.

Extra-professional circumstances can impact on somebody’s ability to do their job, and if they choose to share problems or concerns with you then it is important to show empathy and try to understand what they are going through.

A better understanding of one another improves a team’s ability to work together and therefore improves patient care. Working in a hospital can be traumatic or distressing, and this may affect team members personally.

Having empathetic colleagues can make them feel more positive and that they are well supported in their work.

Common mistakes:

  • Citing an activity like going to the pub with members of the team as an empathetic solution.
  • Saying that working in Medicine gives you no time for social activities, so you might as well be friendly with the people you work with.

As A Doctor, How Would You Deal With A Parent Who Has Brought Their Child Into A&E And Is Angry About Them Having To Wait A Long Time To Be Seen?

Doctors sometimes encounter difficult patients, but in a scenario such as this, it is important to demonstrate empathy and appreciate that the individual usually has a reason for acting the way they are.

Think about ICE – Ideas, Concerns and Expectations. Explain how you would find out why the parent thinks they are having to wait, why they are worried about this, and what they would want you to do about the situation.

Suggest why a parent might be feeling angry in a situation like this. They are most likely worried about their child and may think that staff are not doing enough to get patients seen quickly.

Discuss how you would try to reassure the parent.

It is important to appreciate that someone showing up to A&E may be very distressed and you want to help them be confident that their child will receive the best care possible.

Parents or patients at A&E may also be stressed for reasons that you might not think of, such as other children being left at home or the parent being late for work.

This is why it is important to actually listen so they can explain their situation and you can provide the appropriate support, such as allowing them to use a phone, for example.

Common mistakes:

  • Forgetting about the patient/parent. Explaining how you would get the situation under control is fine, but interviewers are more interested in how you would show empathy for someone who is frustrated or stressed and address their concerns.
  • Failing to ask the patient/parent about their perspective on the situation. Remember ICE.

What Would You Say To A Female Patient Who Is Scared To Get The HPV Vaccine Which Protects Against Cervical Cancer?

With this kind of question, it is important to show how you would communicate your professional opinion whilst respecting the patient’s concerns and giving them a chance to explain things from their perspective.

Explain how you would find out which aspects of the vaccination were worrying the patient, because patients want to feel that they are being listened to and taken seriously.

State that you would give the patient relevant information about what the vaccine does and why it is important.

The patient has a right to know about the treatment being recommended so that they can make an informed decision.

Mention that you would speak in terms that the patient can understand. As a doctor, it is important that you adjust your communication to accommodate different types of people, even when discussing a treatment that you think might be difficult for them to understand.

Explain that you would not push your opinion on the patient. Although they might not have your medical expertise, you cannot disregard the patient’s personal views and, ultimately, patient autonomy must be respected.

Common mistakes:

  • Not respecting the patient’s opinion in your answer. Although you might believe that having the vaccine is the right thing to do, it is important to recognise the patient’s concerns as valid.
  • Focusing too much on the vaccine itself. This question is about how you would communicate empathetically with the patient, so you don’t actually need to know anything specific about the HPV vaccine in order to answer this question.

What Thoughts And Feelings Will Go Through The Mind Of A Patient After Having Been Told That Their Alcoholism Has Led To Irreversible Liver Damage?

This question aims to find out whether you are able to place yourself in the shoes of a patient and understand their emotions whilst receiving bad news such as this.

First, it may help to define empathy and demonstrate that you are aware of the sensitive and delicate nature of this situation.

It’s important to give examples of what the patient will be feeling, alongside a short description of why and how this might change the nature of the consultation. This will prevent your answer from just sounding like a list of emotions and/or too rehearsed.

For example: “The patient may be feeling guilty and remorseful about their actions and their respective consequences. It can be very difficult for a patient to hear that such an effect has come about as a result of their own actions.”

After having thought about what exactly the patient might be feeling, it may be worth talking to the interviewer about how you would then interact with the patient. You could discuss if there are any measures that you would take in anticipation of this consultation to make the patient feel slightly better.

Common mistakes:

  • Going straight into the answer without first talking through the brief to ensure understanding. It might feel basic but it will make it clear that you’ve fully understood the situation.
  • Forgetting that diagnoses such as this are life-long and will affect the patient beyond the initial response to the diagnosis.

Tell Us About A Time You’ve Displayed Empathy

As this is a “give me an example of…” type question, use the STARR acronym to help structure your answer.

It’s important that you understand what is meant by the term empathy, and how this is different to sympathy. You can begin with the definition or weave it throughout your response with referrals to your example.

Remember to think about why this question has been asked. It is essential that Doctors are able to be empathetic with their patients and also towards colleagues.

Link your response back to Medicine – why the quality of empathy is so necessary in the medical profession and how your example makes you feel (to some extent) equipped for the career.

Your example should be specific to you. Strong responses will reflect upon the scenario, why empathy was needed and therefore how you conveyed a sense of it.  Consider both verbal and non-verbal ‘tools’ you may have used when being empathetic. It isn’t just about what you say, but also how you say it!

Part of your reflection can include what you would have done differently now. This demonstrates learning from your experience.

Common mistakes:

  • Not focusing on you. Sometimes candidates misinterpret/mishear the question and talk about scenarios where they witnessed doctors being empathetic, for example. This is irrelevant in this case as the examiners want to hear about your own experiences.
  • Telling a story without reflecting or expanding on your empathetic behaviour. It can be easy to get lost in ‘storytelling’ and waffle. Keep the question in mind and maintain the STARR structure to stay focused.
  • Forgetting to link your points back to Medicine and why the situation or scenario you are describing shows that you will be a good medical student/doctor one day.

Case Study

As a recently qualified Junior Doctor, you are given the chance to perform your first unsupervised colonoscopy. During the procedure, the colonoscope perforates the colon, resulting in the patient becoming acutely unwell and dying just two days later. The patient’s family has now come to see you; how would you approach the situation?

You might be asked to break bad news as part of a role play station or talk the interviewer through your thought process in dealing with a situation like this.

Start by describing the setting in which you’d want to speak to the family – a private, comfortable environment, without disruption or time pressure.

Explain clearly and truthfully what has happened. You will make things worse if you try to bend the truth.

The family members will no doubt be very upset at the loss of a loved one, throughout the conversation, so be aware of how the family is feeling, listen to any concerns they may have and don’t rush.

Given the circumstances arising as the result of a known but rare complication, it may be appropriate to tell the family that certain measures are now being put in place to prevent the same complications arising again.

You should ensure that the family are made aware of counselling services if they want them at such a difficult time, as well as the ability to speak to a more senior doctor.

Common mistakes:

  • Jumping straight into describing what you would say. As mentioned above, start by describing that the situation evokes very strong emotions and should be treated delicately.
  • If you are asked to describe your approach (rather than do a role play), it’s easier to be more flippant as you don’t have the direct face-to-face contact. Make sure you demonstrate the same level of empathy and respect for patients and their emotions, whether it’s a role play or not.

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