Health Take-Away: Empathy in health care is a valuable tool


To be seen and heard are universal needs. We don't want to be judged, and we don't want our emotions dismissed as if they don't matter. We just want to be understood — to know that someone has paused for a moment to consider how we are feeling, why we feel this way, and respect that our beliefs, fears or concerns are legitimate.

This is called empathy. It is the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes and try to see the world through their eyes. Practicing empathy is at the very heart of effective communication. It's what binds strong friendships and loving marriages. It can diffuse controversy, whether it's between a parent and child, a manager and employee, or even among those with opposing political opinions. Having empathy means that you are aware of the feelings and emotions of others and try to understand what they are going through.

Physicians may not think they have time for empathy. In the fast-paced world of healthcare, doctors typically have just minutes with the average patient to assess their condition, diagnose an illness, order tests or write prescriptions. At the center of this encounter is a patient filled with emotion — fear of illness or death, anxiety about lost time at work, discomfort from pain and other symptoms, problems at home or work and even embarrassment, especially if the patient's illness is tied to self-defeating lifestyle choices such as smoking, drinking or obesity.

By acknowledging a patient's emotions in a non-judgmental way, ("drinking helped you cope with a stressful life") trust begins to build and better communication follows. The relationship between physician and patient becomes more productive, leading to better patient care and outcome.

Multiple studies conclude that physicians who practice genuine empathy actually save time and provide more effective health care. That's because having empathy for a patient's feelings can instantly change the dynamics of the visit. Patients feel as if their emotions are valid, that their physician is not judging them, and that they are justified in seeking the best care possible. Without a need to be defensive, patients are far more apt to speak freely, provide additional clues that can help with a diagnosis, and follow their doctor's advice.

Empathy is not lecturing, story-telling or educating. It involves a genuine effort to connect with a patient on an emotional level, and it's a hot topic in medicine these days. In my work with medical residents and other caregivers, I know first-hand the dedication of health care professionals. Most, if not all, became physicians because they care about people. They are healers by nature and want to help their patients.

Yet, in a now famous study conducted at Jefferson Medical School, a vast majority of medical students had lost much of their empathy for patients by the third year of medical school. Demanding schedules, the need to know a great deal of information, and even reliance on technology (which can limit human interaction) are all part of the reasons for the decline. Today, many medical schools are now including empathy training to help create a new generation of compassionate physicians.

This is important work. Demonstrating empathy for a patient — or for anyone — doesn't have to involve long conversations and lots of time to make a significant and rewarding impact. It only takes a few minutes to show that you understand and truly care.

Newell Young is a Medical Social Worker on the Consult-Liaison service in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Berkshire Medical Center. He provides empathy training for medical students and residents, management, and other staff.


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