Showing on-the-job compassion is about what you do, not how you feel

The healthcare technology management (HTM) profession needs skilled technicians, technologists, engineers, and managers who understand the patient care setting and can collaborate with the healthcare staff. Technical and analytical skills are vital, but even more critical to workplace success is the ability to display professionalism.

Depending on whom you ask, professionalism can incorporate a range of qualities or behaviors. One of its least commonly mentioned but most important components is empathy. In healthcare settings, professional empathy can be described as a capacity to connect with a clinician or colleague in a relationship that demonstrates compassion and a willingness to help, evoking feelings of trust and mutual understanding.1,2

Vital to understanding professional empathy is recognizing that it focuses on behaviors rather than feelings. By learning to display the markers of empathy and professionalism in general, HTM departments can become more effective partners in patient care.

The Professional

Defining or characterizing professionalism is often centered around factors having to do with appearance (such as wardrobe, personal grooming, and body art) and certain behaviors (particularly etiquette and communication). Because professionalism can encompass so many qualities, it can be beneficial to outline detailed expectations in order to assess employees.

After consultation with employers, our institution chose to use the rubric shown in Table 1. The eleven professionalism characteristics listed there include organization, timeliness, communication skills, ability to accept criticism, demeanor, grooming, collaboration, initiative, self-improvement, adaptability, and empathy.

Some of these qualities are easy to measure or assess. It’s often clear when an employee has trouble meeting deadlines or needs better follow-through on assigned tasks. Employee annual reviews may involve setting specific behavioral targets (for example, to attend a certain number of service schools or to establish a system for completing reports on time).

But empathy can be a challenge, both to define as well as assess. Fortunately, HTM professionals are not the only group of medical professionals who value professional empathy. Scholarly literature contains many research studies on the qualities of empathy and tools that can be used to cultivate this skill set.

A Bridge to Success

Shifting from a reputation as the “fix-it” person to a personal relationship with a clinician can be vital to successful overall technology management and professional success. To make this transition, technicians and managers must come to understand the technological needs of medical staff and patients through helpful and reliable relationships with colleagues. The bridge to forming those relationships is empathy.

Professional empathy is centered around the rites, rituals, and values of HTM as a helping profession. Assisting clinicians and patients is a key aspect of any technician’s role. However, personality, family or cultural background, regional differences, gender, and a number of other factors can cause variations in how HTM professionals demonstrate their concern for others. Those differences can lead to misunderstandings and miscommunication if those individuals encounter others in a healthcare setting who process empathy differently than they do.

Remember that professional empathy is rooted in behaviors rather than feelings. Empathy is not sympathy: Sympathy is based on personal connections and shared mutual feelings. Empathy, in contrast, is focused on the feelings of the other person and is reflected in behaviors such as attentive listening and demonstrating a willingness to help. Effectively displayed, empathy assures clinicians or colleagues that you understand their concerns. It can be demonstrated through three components:

  • Recognition of the situation or challenge
  • Exploration of the other’s concerns
  • Validation of those concerns with an expressed willingness to assist

These qualities may be challenging to describe, assess, or improve. However, psychologists offer us a very short survey tool we can use. The Toronto Empathy Questionnaire3 is shown in Table 2. This 16-question survey tool can offer insight into the empathy skills of an individual. Scores are known to vary between men and women, and cultural background or ideology can contribute to variations in empathy scores. However, the score may help promote self-awareness as well as point toward training opportunities to develop this valuable characteristic.

Show and Tell

If an initial assessment indicates that a professional’s empathy skills require improvement, a number of possible solutions exist. Critical to the development of professional empathy is the recognition that personal core feelings do not have to change. Instead, training tools focus on cultivating purposeful actions to display empathy.

For example, technicians can learn to use semistandard responses when communicating with clinicians, such as “I understand your concerns. Let’s work together.” Even a review of positive and negative nonverbal cues can be useful. For instance, individuals tend to respond positively when the person they are speaking with makes eye contact, uses kind facial expressions and a warm tone of voice, and displays open body postures such as leaning forward. In contrast, physical behaviors such as silence, sighing, inappropriate laughter, failing to hold eye contact, or continually checking a cell phone or iPad are associated with low empathy.

Research studies show that purposeful activities that improve an understanding of professional empathy can enhance the display of empathy. Empathy training often includes reading literature, viewing paintings, or watching plays. Holocaust novels are often linked to deeper understandings of oneself and others, which can improve empathy. In 2013, Science published a study showing that empathy scores improved after subjects spent only a few minutes reading literary fiction such as The Round House by Louise Erdrich.4 Research has even shown an increase in professional empathy skills in medical students who take acting classes.5 Essentially, HTM professionals too must learn to “act” empathetically.

HTM departments may explore empathy development during department meetings by role-playing. Consider creating a scenario in which a nurse is frustrated by a pump that will not stop beeping. Allow a department member to interact with the technician playing the role of the nurse (you might consider using a beeping pump for an enhanced experience). Recording the interaction and reviewing it afterward can also offer opportunities to look for displays of empathy. Engaging an actual nurse to participate may also lend powerful realism to the exercise. For a more in-depth experience, consider having a technician shadow a floor, OR, or ER nurse. These shared common experiences can enhance empathy.

Professional empathy is a vital skill that can be assessed and enhanced. With some practice, persistence, and creativity, HTM technicians and managers can develop this important workplace characteristic.

Barbara Christe is associate professor of healthcare engineering technology management at Indiana University—Purdue University Indianapolis. For more information, contact chief editor Jenny Lower at [email protected].


  1. Cunico, L., Sartori, R., Marognolli, O., & Meneghini, A. Developing empathy in nursing students: A cohort longitudinal study. J Clin Nursing. 2012;21:2016-2025. DOI 10.111/j1365-2702.2012.04105.x
  2. Halpern, J. What is clinical empathy? J Gen Intern Med. 2003;18(8):661-674.
  3. Spreng, R., McKinnon, M., Mar, R., & Levine, B. The Toronto Empathy Questionnaire. J Pers Assess. 2009;91(1):62-71.
  4. Comer Kidd, D., Castano, E. Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind. Science. 2013;342(6156):377-380. DOI: 10.1126/science.1239918.
  5. Dow, A., Leong, D., Anderson, A., & Wenzel, R. Using theater to teach clinical empathy: A pilot study. J Gen Intern Med. 2007;22(8):1114-1118.

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