Caring for patients requires a great depth of medical knowledge, strong patient communication skills and a sincere interest in human health and wellbeing. In addition to these qualities, demonstrating empathy—the capacity to share the feelings of another person—can bring a new level of meaning to patient interactions while improving health outcomes. Following is a look at why and how physicians should cultivate this important skill.
Empathy and its Role in Clinical Settings
An article published by NIH’s Library of Medicine and the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) states that empathy is “the ability to understand the personal experience of the patient without bonding with them.” Authors Maria Moudatsou, Areti Stavropoulou, Anastas Philalithis and Sofia Koukouli explain that this communication skill is key for health professionals for many reasons. Most notably, it results in better health outcomes. “It has been proven that health professionals with high levels of empathy operate more efficiently as to the fulfillment of their role in eliciting therapeutic change,” they write.
When health professionals channel empathy, it improves their ability to understand patient needs while creating an environment where patients feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and concerns.
Factors that Facilitate Empathy
According to the authors, studies show that the following physician characteristics are positively associated with empathy:
- Work experience
- Presence of self-esteem
- Engagement in work
- Emotional regulation
- Reflective ability
- Emotional intelligence
Barriers to Empathy
Although the benefits of empathy are well-established, there are also challenges to integrating this communication tool in clinical practice. For example, the authors explain that having high numbers of patients to manage, lack of time and lack of education on the importance of empathy are barriers to its incorporation. Anxiety, lack of awareness, daily stress levels and fear of crossing professional boundaries may also be factors.
Tips to Cultivate Empathy
Developing empathy is not a finite skill—rather, it requires continuous study and education. To further refine empathic skills, KevinMD.com’s Jennifer Bradley, FNP-C, shares the following guidance for healthcare professionals:
- Listen carefully to patients to fully understand their experience. “Our patients know their bodies and what they are experiencing better than we do,” Bradley writes. “Each patient is different, and the more information we have concerning our patient will further help us find out what’s going on with them.”
- Treat patients how you or your family would like to be treated. Bradley encourages physicians to preserve patients’ dignity by knocking before entering rooms, addressing them respectfully, keeping their bodies covered when possible and keeping them updated on their care plan.
- Imagine how you would feel if you were in your patient’s position.
- Sit at the patient’s level. Hovering above a patient could make them feel uncomfortable or intimidated and hinder the physician-patient relationship. “Since sitting on the patient’s bed may break infection control measures or policies; grab a chair and place it at the patient’s bedside so you can be eye level,” Bradley advises.
- Learn about your patient’s background. Pay attention to your patient’s cultural background and health literacy levels, as these can inform your interactions and help develop treatment plans.
Bradley concludes by reminding physicians that it takes considerable time to master empathy. “We should constantly strive to include it in our day-to-day practice. Empathy is crucial to improving patient outcomes, decreasing burnout, and enhancing the provider-patient relationship,” she explains.
To further refine communication skills, we encourage physicians to explore MLMIC’s existing resources on patient interactions, including this article on the importance of patient engagement and this guide to discussing stigmatized conditions.