Health care providers have tough jobs. Many experience high levels of stress, which can inhibit empathy (Park et al., 2015). This is concerning, as empathy leads to better outcomes for both patients and clinicians. Here’s the good news: empathy is a skill we can build, just like a muscle.
Let’s take a closer look at the role of empathy in health care.
Empathy is a shared value.
Patients and their families consistently rank empathetic behavior as a priority in their healthcare experience (Sinclair et al., 2016). Empathy is also recognized in the American Medical Association Principles of Medical Ethics. The first principle calls for a commitment to “competent medical care with compassion and respect for human dignity and rights.”
Empathy is medicine.
When compassionate care is a reality, everyone benefits. Empathy contributes to better care, better health, and a better workplace.
Sources: Barsade & O’Neill, 2014; Bertakis & Azari, 2011; Canale et al., 2012; Dahlin et al., 2010; Egbert et al., 1964; Egbert & Jackson, 2013; Kelley et al., 2014; Kelm et al., 2014; Konrath, 2014; Lamothe et al., 2016; Lown et al., 2011; Rakel et al., 2011; Redelmeier et al., 1995; Sinclair et al., 2016; Zolnierek & Dimatteo, 2009.
Empathy is a challenge.
In a survey of 800 recently hospitalized patients and 510 physicians, only 53% of patients and 58% of physicians said the health care system generally provides empathetic care (Lown et al., 2011). While most clinicians aspire to be empathetic and feel confident in their ability to do so, studies have repeatedly found that providers miss 70–90% of opportunities to show empathy in response to emotional distress in patients (Hsu et al., 2012).
Barriers to empathy in health care include (Sinclair et al., 2016):
A lack of time, support, and staffing
A focus on litigation, metrics, and efficiency
A negative workplace culture
Difficult patients or families
Complex clinical situations
Stress and burnout
Empathy is a skill.
Providers can cultivate and demonstrate empathy using a number of simple and evidence-based strategies. Here are a few examples:
- Recognize and respond to suffering. Signs of pain (physical or emotional) are key moments to tune in, gather information, and offer support.
- Use deep listening. Consider asking questions like, “What’s the most important thing we can do for you today?” Listening to the full answer can lead to a better understanding of what patients want and need.
- Embrace shared decision making. When possible, offer patients options, describe their risks and benefits, and ask their preferences.
- Participate in an empathy training. Training that involves experiential and reflective learning can be especially effective in boosting clinician empathy.
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