Altruism and Empathy in Healthcare

At some point in most people’s lives, they will be caregivers. From early childhood, we know how to console and comfort others. Before long, we can take care of ourselves – by eating and drinking for survival, by bandaging our own wounds. Parents take care of their children, younger generations take care of the older; we take care of our loved-ones, as well as strangers, animals, and plants. By all accounts, caregiving is a universal behaviour, not only in humans but in many species. However, not all individuals are equally inclined to provide care, nor have the same desire to. And, we are more likely to take care of our loved-ones than perfect strangers.

Yet, in all cultures, providing care is a daily activity, if not a profession, for many people. In the West, where biomedicine has developed exponentially over the last seventy years, a large number of healthcare professionals undergo extensive training which is often highly specialised. These healthcare professionals are frequently characterised as “altruistic and highly empathetic individuals.”

But what exactly are altruism and empathy? Are they innate behaviours (based in biology) or learned ones (influenced by culture and environment)? What is their place in the behaviour of practitioners and in the expectations of patients? Can altruism and empathy be enhanced? What are their limitations?

Medicine and Humanities modules focus on philosophy, ethics, history, arts and literature as they relate to the practice of medicine. Prepared by specialists in medical and human sciences, these modules aim to provide a basis of support for knowledge and reflection so that students and health care professionals are able to develop their vision of disease and care from a bio-psycho-social perspective within a wider field of knowledge.

The author

francois-AuclairDr. Marc Zaffran practiced medicine in France between 1983 and 2008, as a family physician and in a women’s health clinic. In 2015, he obtained a Master’s degree in Bioethics from the University of Montreal. Under the pseudonym Martin Winckler, he published a number of novels at P.O.L. in France: La maladie de Sachs (translated in English as The Case of Doctor Sachs), Le Chœur des femmes, En souvenir d’André, and Abraham & fils. His medical essays include Profession : Médecin de famille, Le patient et le médecin, both of which were published at the University of Montreal Press, and Les Brutes en blanc at Flammarion in France. Dr. Zaffran is interested in how ethical dilemmas are represented in medical television dramas; he wrote a book about the TV series House, M.D., entitled Dr House, l’esprit du Shaman. He leads an annual writing workshops for medical students in the Physicianship program at McGill University, and he contributes to the Medicine and Humanities program at the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Ottawa.


  • Define empathy and altruism, and point out their biological basis;
  • Understand the place empathy and altruism have in relationships between patients and healthcare professionals
  • Know and understand the limitations and obstacles to empathy that caregivers experience regularly, and the means by which they can avoid empathy erosion of over the course of their training and medical practice.


Throughout the module, we invite you to PAUSE AND REFLECT in order to reinforce what you have learned. Take the time to write down your answers and ideas. An answer is given by the expert to help you deepen and ground your reflection. It is not meant to challenge the value of your personal answer but is there to offer new directions.
We also invite you to take personal notes using the “Note Taking” tool on the right.

Subject matter expert: Marc Zaffran, MD
Concept Development and Project Management: Isabelle Burnier, MD, M.Ed
Editorial Committee: Jean Roy, MD, Diane Bouchard-Lamothe, M. Sc.S.
Programming and Graphic Design: Medtech, University of Ottawa
Production: December 2016