At one time, the medical community viewed a doctor’s bedside manner as less important than their technical abilities. But with a growing lack of trust between patients and their clinicians, the ability to empathize is proving to be essential: for both the patient and the clinician’s well-being.
What Is Empathy?
Merriam-Webster defines empathy as the action of understanding, being aware of, and sensitive to another’s experience.
The Jefferson Scale of Empathy defines empathy in patient care as a “cognitive attribute that involves an ability to understand a patient’s pain, suffering, and perspective combined with a capability to communicate this understanding and an intention to help.”
Although closely related to “sympathy,” a feeling of loyalty or compassion, empathy goes a step further and vicariously experiences another person’s feelings, thoughts, and attitudes. It’s “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes,” to quote the admonition.
Can Empathy Be Taught?
Empathy may or may not be inborn, but it can be taught.
Roman Krznaric, a public philosopher and author of “Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It,” said in an interview, “Research suggests that about 50 percent of our empathic capacities are genetically inherited and the rest we can learn because empathy is not simply a matter of wiring.”
Empathy is an especially salient factor in medical education. In the same way that schools train doctors to think analytically, they should also train them to communicate empathetically. Being a good doctor doesn’t only involve an understanding of science but people as well.
An article in the journal Advances in Human Biology, “Empathy in medical education: Can ‘kindness’ be taught, learned and assessed?” said, “Medical curricula should provide ample opportunity for students to develop empathy and display-related attributes such as emotional intelligence and self-esteem. Curriculum reform in medicine is needed to enable mandatory training to teach and inculcate these attributes to help physicians have better patient interactions and ultimately improve the quality of care.”
What Impact Does Empathy Have?
Hospitals and health systems should not underestimate empathy’s impact on patients and clinicians. Empathy correlates with increased patient experience leading to higher HCAHPS scores, a clinician’s personal growth and decreased burnout, and lower malpractice rates.
Research shows that empathy and compassion are associated with better adherence to medications, fewer mistakes, increased patient satisfaction, and improved patient care outcomes. Also, patients who perceive their providers as more empathetic tend to get better faster and suffer less aggressive symptoms..
Empathy doesn’t only help patients; doctors benefit as well. For one, it results in lower burnout rates. While a certain amount of detachment is healthy, too much can lead to exhaustion. Maintaining balance is critical.
It also reduces interdepartmental tensions. Seeing things from another doctor or departments’ perspective — emergency medicine and hospital medicine, for example — can avert contention before it has a chance to develop.
Studies show that patients who are dissatisfied with their providers’ ability to establish rapport, communicate effectively, and express empathy are more likely to file a malpractice suit.
Frequently sued providers were often seen as rushed, indifferent, and unwilling to listen and answer questions. On the other hand, high levels of patient satisfaction result in fewer lawsuits and other risk management difficulties. Most claims are brought as a result of anger, not injuries. Its antidotes are empathy and strong interpersonal skills.
What Steps Can Clinicians Take to Express Empathy?
Hospital administrators should encourage leaders to evaluate their respective team’s empathy levels and strategize how to play to people’s strengths. That includes offering training and development on empathy and communication skills.
Recognizing outstanding examples of empathy and encouraging others to follow that lead is another way to instill a culture of empathy among clinical and non-clinical staff alike. That starts by leadership creating an environment in which clinicians can empathize.
Here are six ways leaders can help:
- Ensure adequate coverage – Create a flexible coverage model that doesn’t leave clinicians feeling overwhelmed.
- Keep communication lines open – Give clinicians a way to express their concerns and routinely check their pulse.
- Empower your team – Reduce administrative burdens to allow doctors to focus on patient care.
- Encourage camaraderie – Create places for doctors to connect and interact informally.
- Recognize the struggle – Acknowledge that times are tough and express appreciation to clinicians for all they are doing.
- Prioritize mental health – Make mental health resources available to ensure clinicians take good care of themselves, as they do for their patients.
It’s in the hospital’s best interest to hire for empathy, train for empathy, and build a culture with empathy at the center. The payoff is certain: more satisfied patients and clinicians lead to greater trust, loyalty, and long-term growth.