Promoting a Culture Based on Empathy in Cork University Hospital

Jan 29, 2018 - J.A. McNamara



Empathy BlogAs our large acute teaching hospitals become ever more advanced in the technologies to diagnose and treat patients, we are increasingly challenged to foster and encourage behaviours that reflect values such as compassion, individualisation and empathy. To do otherwise would be to depersonalise our relationships with patients and to lose some of our soul – what it is that makes us individually and collectively what we are. In Cork University Hospital (CUH) we work hard to create a culture that is grounded in values such as mutual respect, support for patients, their families and staff and being able to empathise and to understand the very real challenges that each face on their individual and collective journeys.

Paul Basalgette in his book “The Empathy Instinct” succinctly notes that empathy has been described as “empathetic communication, the ability to value, feel, understand and respect other people’s feelings, emotion recognition, strong imagination and the capacity for reflection”. It is part of what connects care givers with those in receipt of care and should be the basis of that relationship.

Seen in this light the need for empathy in our hospitals (and in society generally) has never been greater given the use of cold dispassionate terms such as “the number of patients on trolleys” or “patients on waiting lists” or “adherence to key performance indicators”. We are very much in danger of losing our soul unless we collectively realise that patients and others using our services are individuals and must be engaged with empathically at that personal level. The challenge in our acute hospitals is made ever more difficult because of the never-ending drive towards for example increasingly complex technologies, robotics and virtual clinics based on telemedicine in which care is provided remotely oftentimes in a different care setting remote from the patient.

The challenge for healthcare professionals to engage at this level is not an insignificant one and Lown et. al. Al (2011) in a study of 800 patients in the US found that only half of the doctors treating them were empathetic or caring. In order to emphasise the importance of fostering and supporting an empathetic culture for Doctors in Training in Cork University Hospital, our induction programme includes a video produced by the Cleveland Clinic in the United States (“If we Could See Inside Others’ Hearts” that challenges us all to put ourselves in the shoes of those who we treat or with whom we work by concluding:

“If you could stand in someone else’s shoes;

Hear what they hear;

See what they see;

Feel what they feel;

Would you treat them differently?”


We would all do well to reflect on this challenge every day as we shape the culture of our Hospital to make it uniquely responsive to the needs of patients, their families and our own staff.

There are of course very many distractions that militate against staff engaging empathically with patients, notwithstanding their innate desire to do so. These include for example pressures on staff because of staffing levels, competing priorities at ward level, language and cultural barriers. Notwithstanding these impediments it is important that hospitals (and other healthcare settings) advocate and foster behaviours in promoting a culture that emphasises the importance of empathy, respect and compassion in patient care. That is a key function of leadership at all levels from the Board to the bedside and one that must be taken very seriously indeed.




J.A. McNamara

Chief Executive Officer

2 Comment(s) on this page



A thought-provoking and timely reminder to us all in healthcare.



No empathy shown to my daughter by staff at CUH Early Pregnancy Unit.

Leave a Comment

Last Modified Date: 29/01/2018 12:11:08