Compassion in Action with Steven Field, MD: Building long-term patient relationships through listening


Name: Steven Field, MD

Title: Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine, New York University (NYU) School of Medicine; Clinical Ethics Consultant, NYU Langone Medical Center. 

Advice to the Next Generation of Caregivers: Field advises caregivers to cultivate a habit of curiosity about their patients, because each of them has a unique story. Learning about a patient will help strengthen the patient-caregiver connection and also sustain caregivers throughout their careers, fortifying them against the daily demands and time pressures they face.

Interesting Facts: Field enjoys tennis and writing fiction, which help him stay centered.

Schwartz Center Activities: Field serves as one of two physician leaders at NYC Langone Medical Center for its Schwartz Center Rounds® program. In addition to chairing the planning committee, he also co-facilitates many of the Schwartz Center Rounds sessions.


“Compassion is the ability to be moved by someone else’s suffering and to want to help and to care. It is about intentionality, you have to want to help people, and that’s crucial.” – Steven Field, MD

Building long-term relationships

At a young age, Steven Field experienced a life-changing event that has been integral to shaping his perspective of the patient-caregiver relationship. His mother was diagnosed with cancer when he was 12 years old, and he remembers his mother’s doctor modeling behaviors that showed him a compassionate way to care for others. Encouraged by his family’s experience with a caring provider, Field decided to volunteer at his local hospital throughout junior high school and high school, visiting with patients and then later working on physician-led research projects.

“What I found most rewarding about volunteering was the opportunity to be around patients and their families, and learning more about their life stories,” says Field.

Field’s passion for gaining a deeper understanding of other people’s narratives was evident in his academic focus. As an undergraduate student at Yale University, Field studied English and history, and later decided to pursue medicine because he enjoyed both meeting and building relationships with individuals from all different walks of life, and caring for others.

Field found many facets of his 30-year career in medicine fulfilling. “The most meaningful part of my career has been my longitudinal relationships with patients. There were patients that I had seen for 25 years. I’d taken care of their family members. I’d been at their family events. Those relationships are priceless,” says Field.

Learning through listening

Fascinated by the psycho social aspects of disease he encountered while treating patients in his internal medicine and gastroenterology practices, he always was impressed by the psychological subtext of patient-caregiver interactions. He was intrigued by patients who would often tell him things that they felt they couldn’t share with their therapists, and realized the role of the physician is greater than addressing just the biological determinants of disease. This realization, paired with his interest in building deeper relationships with his patients, led him to pursue training in psychoanalytic psychotherapy.

Field is a strong believer in the mind and body approach to medicine, and that one of the most important things a caregiver can do while meeting with a patient is to just listen. “Asking patients open-ended questions and then letting them talk, is the best way to discover how to treat them,” says Field.

Through listening, Field says caregivers are able to get to the “kernel of the problem.” He recognizes that it’s often a patient’s fear surrounding the medical condition that needs to be addressed before they are able to continue with the diagnostic process. Uncovering that apprehension and understanding where the patient is coming from allows a caregiver to talk through that situation and address the patient’s trepidation.

The importance of human touch

“The first thing I did when meeting with a patient was to shake their hand. I believe that establishing a bond of contact at the very beginning of the interaction sets a positive tone for the rest of the appointment,” says Field. Through this action, he also works to communicate the respect he has for his patient and establish a personal bond.

Field recalls an older woman with chronic liver disease who he treated for a long time. He continued to care for her as her health declined, until one day he received word that she had been admitted to the intensive care unit. Field immediately went to visit her. Once he arrived in the ICU, he saw that she was on a respirator and in a coma. He held his dying patient’s hand as he comforted and spoke to her, giving his final farewell. A nearby nurse who was touched by this act of compassion tearfully remarked, “I’ve never seen anyone do that before.”

“Often when you lose a patient that you’ve taken care of for a long time, it’s hard because they’ve become like family members,” says Field. “But building these intimate relationships with patients and their families is what really makes being a caregiver such a special privilege.”

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