Can someone become a doctor without being compassionate? It’s definitely possible. Thousands of people apply and matriculate to medical school every year and not every single one of those applicants is truly compassionate. You may know this to be true first hand. Maybe you’ve had an experience with a physician whom showed you little to no compassion. If you have had such an experience, you know how terrible it is.

Some, including many patients and even doctors, argue that many doctors lack or have lost compassion for their fellow man. This accusation is because you can fake compassion. You can pretend that you are a compassionate on a medical school application, even an interview, but if you lack compassion in daily living, it will inevitably unearth itself during patient care.

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Can compassion be taught? Or is it something you’re born with? Perhaps you can only learn compassion by being in a position where you need to be shown compassion. Recent research argues that compassion is a “natural and autonomic response that has ensured our survival”. Even though the heart of compassion is a natural instinct, part of what makes us human, the same research argues that it “sometimes helps to receive some training” to cultivate compassion.

Medical schools are looking for applicants who genuinely desire to help their fellow man. They want you to develop compassion before medical school. But this shouldn’t be the reason why you want to be or are compassionate. If you do not care about helping others for the simple sake of helping others and not for your personal gain, perhaps medicine isn’t the right career for you.

So how do you cultivate compassion? I think it first starts with introspection. We must all look at our own life experiences and think of how they can help you relate to others. We must then think of which people we naturally find ourselves wanting to help. Perhaps your younger brother had brain cancer. Or maybe on the less extreme end, you had asthma growing up and want to help others with asthma.

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With that being said, we can also develop compassion for people without having any life experiences that are connected with them. For example, I find myself caring a lot about disabled children. I did not personally know any disabled children growing up but as I learned more about their struggle, my heart grew for them. The amazing thing about compassion is that different people care about different things. Your heart may break for the homeless. Your friend, on the other hand, can care much more in aiding teenage moms. This variety of passions is how all people are cared for.

As future physicians, it is really important for us to put ourselves in positions where we really have to stretch ourselves emotionally and mentally. We should put ourselves out in the field, pushing ourselves to help those in need (whatever way you define need). If you are hoping to apply to medical school, use your extracurricular activities to develop compassion before medical school and not just to pad your resume. The same can be said for medical students, practice placing yourself in other people’s shoes by learning their stories and struggles.

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Human beings may be born with compassion but I believe it is something that needs to be exercised so that it grows and flourishes in us. It is so important for us to feed compassion early in our training so that it sets the tone for the rest of our careers. We must be practicing it consistently. And I think the best time to start is now.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ProspectiveDoctor. Follow ProspectiveDoctor on Twitter @ProspectiveDr

Edward Chang

Edward Chang is the Co-founder and Director of Operations of ProspectiveDoctor.com. He graduated from the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and is currently a urology resident at the University of Washington. He also attended UCLA as an undergraduate, graduating with a major in Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology. If you are interested in contributing to ProspectiveDoctor.com, please contact him at edwardchang@prospectivedoctor.com. Follow him on Twitter @EdwardChangMD and Prospective Doctor @ProspectiveDr.

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