Clinical empathy was once dismissively known as “good bedside manner” and traditionally regarded as far less important than technical ability. But as the healthcare industry continues to focus on better patient experiences and higher satisfaction, Physicians work to improve their communication skills and empathy is a key factor of good provider communication.
Clinical empathy means the Physician possess a cognitive attribute that involves understanding a patient’s perspective and an ability to communicate this understanding, with an intention to help.
Research has shown that Doctors who are more empathetic are more trusted, and thus have better patient outcomes and demonstrate greater clinical competence.
“When patients feel like their doctor cares about and understands them, they are more likely to trust,” explains Mohammadreza Hojat, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and human behavior and director of the Jefferson Longitudinal Study at Thomas Jefferson University. He adds, “Patients who trust their doctors are likely to reveal more about their lifestyle and other factors relevant to their illness, allowing for more accurate diagnoses and appropriate treatments.”
Empathy has been tied to increased medication adherence, fewer malpractice complaints, improved patient satisfaction, and better health outcomes. Respondents to a 2016 study from Massachusetts General Hospital said that clinician empathy is the distinguishing factor in a positive patient-provider interaction.
But most of the literature concludes that medical students lose their empathy throughout the course of their education. This has long presented a serious problem considering the importance of clinician empathy in driving a positive patient experience.
While some people are naturally better at being empathic, empathy can be taught. While empathy courses are rarely required in medical training, interest in them is growing, experts say, and programs are underway at Jefferson Medical College and at Columbia University School of Medicine. Columbia has pioneered a program in narrative medicine, which emphasizes the importance of understanding patients’ life stories in providing compassionate care.
While the curricula differ, most focus on self-monitoring by doctors to reduce defensiveness, improve listening skills (one study found that, on average, Doctors interrupt patients within 18 seconds), and decode facial expressions and body language. Some programs use actors as simulated patients and provide feedback to individual doctors.
Empathy is key to a strong patient-provider relationship because it allows the clinician to act in the best interest of the patient and gives the patient some comfort. Medical educators need to understand how their students learn and develop their empathy skills to ensure future Physicians can meet patients’ physical needs and their emotional needs.