1. Section Editor(s): Donnelly, Gloria F. PhD, RN, FAAN, FCPP
  2. Editor-in-Chief

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I wondered why the student nurse had shaved her head. Was it a fad hairdo or a political statement, or was it the result of some medication regimen? I inquired about the student's health and was assured by one of her faculty mentors that all was well. It was not until the senior student pinning ceremony that I learned the significance of the shaved head. It was empathy! The student was working on a pediatric oncology unit where virtually every young patient lost their hair as a result of chemotherapy. The student shaved her head as a gesture of empathy so that the children could more easily identify with and relate to her and her with them. The nursing student had expressed the deepest meaning of empathy-to identify, to feel, and to be with the other.

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As the student walked to the podium to receive a "clinical effectiveness" award, I thought about the concept of empathy and how it may have gone underground in this high-tech, evidence-based world of health care. I found it difficult to associate the words "empathy" and "clinical." We used to explore empathy as a component of good nursing care when I was a student many years ago. However, it was not always easy or natural to empathize with every patient or family, nor did some of my student colleagues seem to have the personality characteristics or the value system that facilitated an empathetic response. The concept of empathy was popularized in the 1950s by the counselor and psychotherapist Carl Rogers. According to Rogers,1 empathy is at the heart of a therapeutic relationship, defining the "core conditions" of the therapist's behavior as behaving in a genuine and transparent manner and assuming a nonjudgmental attitude toward the patient, which Rogers termed "unconditional, positive regard."


A scan of the recent nursing literature reveals a renewed interest in the concept of empathy, with explorations of the origins of the concept, methods for teaching empathic behavior, ways to apply empathy during nursing care, and, of course, in this era of evidence-based practice, scales and observational methods for measuring empathy.2 However, as with many holistic concepts and practices, dissection destroys their essential nature.


Authentic acts of empathy, like the nursing student shaving her head to identify with the pediatric oncology patients, originate at the crossroads of values, caring, and courage. It is doubtful that such noble acts of caring can be taught or even measured. We can only hope that they occur more often.


-Gloria F. Donnelly, PhD, RN, FAAN, FCPP






1. Rogers CR. Client Centered Therapy. London, England: Constable; 1951. [Context Link]


2. Chowdhry S. Exploring the concept of empathy in nursing: can it lead to an abuse of patient trust? Nursing Times. October 24, 2010. Accessed June 18, 2016. [Context Link]