Fostering Empathy is a Critical Practice for Physicians
One of the most valuable traits a physician can possess is capacity for empathy—defined by the Society for General Internal Medicine as "the act of correctly acknowledging the emotional state of another without experiencing that state oneself." Physicians who can empathize with patients can reduce frustration and anger and increase the likelihood of beneficial therapeutic outcomes.
Ironically, however, studies indicate that empathy starts to erode during medical school and continues to diminish after physicians enter the workforce. In part, this is because physicians are taught to maintain professional detachment in order to afford reliable care to all patients, regardless of personal feelings.
So how can physicians cultivate and maintain empathy?
Here are a few strategies physicians can employ to foster empathy and transform emotionally charged interactions with patients into constructive dialog.
Recognize your own emotions.
Evidence suggests that taking time to develop and practice self-awareness reduces errors, enhances decision-making and helps resolve conflict. Research shows that people readily correct negative appraisals or feedback once they are attuned to their own negative emotions.
Tune into the emotional subtext in a patient’s story.
Deliberately listening for a patient’s distinct emotional concerns, which might be obscured by words spoken or urgent clinical demands, is another useful strategy. Research shows that listening to the emotional meaning behind a patient’s words, as opposed to restricting attention to only the facts, creates more opportunities for physicians to cultivate and exercise empathy.
Pay attention to nonverbal communication.
Nonverbal cues and communication between patients and physicians can affect patient satisfaction and health outcomes. Physicians can demonstrate empathic behavior by adjusting their own gestures, vocal tone and pauses, and by being aware of interpersonal distance with patients. Studies suggest that the best way to learn these techniques is through role-modeling or formal communication skills training.
Learn to accept negative feedback.
Despite the prevailing medical culture, physicians must learn to accept a patient’s feedback, even when it is negative or accusatory. This enables patients to share more difficult feelings that might otherwise be suppressed during conflicts, while also providing physicians a gateway to empathy.
Ask an experienced clinician who is gifted in patient care to mentor you.
This can include analyzing recorded encounters between physicians and patients, as well as role-playing exercises. Also, check out The Balint Society—an organization present at many medical schools that consists of clinicians and teachers who emphasize the importance of emotion and personal understanding in the doctor-patient relationship.
Don’t skip taking medical histories.
In addition to revealing medical facts that might be helpful in diagnosing or treating patients, taking a medical history also creates an opening to cultivate a closer relationship with patients.
Building and maintaining empathy can yield many tangible rewards, including personal growth and career
satisfaction for physicians and improved health outcomes for patients. Remember to treat the whole person, not just the disease.
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