Practicing Empathy in Healthcare

When healthcare workers are more empathetic, patients have better outcomes and physicians report it improves their mood. But many factors keep professionals from using an empathetic approach.
PASADENA, Calif. - Nov. 17, 2020 - PRLog -- Empathy, as defined by an article in the National Center for Biotechnology Information ( (NCBI), is "the ability to understand and share other people's feelings." It has cognitive, affective, and behavioral aspects. Cognitive describes the ability to objectively understand others' situations. Affective refers to acceptance of the other person. And actions aimed at solving problems fall under behavioral.

This may seem like a lot, but when put in everyday terms, it becomes much simpler. Two friends are talking on the phone. Friend One recently experienced a stressful incident at work. Friend Two draws on a similar experience recalling the events and their feelings at the time. They encourage Friend One to share openly. After Friend One finishes their story, Friend Two offers words of encouragement. These types of empathetic interactions happen daily without much thought into the science behind them.

However, even healthcare professionals that practice empathy with friends and family may struggle to transfer behaviors to their work environments. Studies show ( that many, as high as 70%, do not know how or find it difficult to connect to users on an emotional level. An article in the AMA Journal of Ethics suggested it may be caused in part by the "clinically detached" ( physician model recommended in older research and schooling. The argument being that emotions cloud a physician's judgment leading to poor patient treatment. However, more research now disproves this.

Practicing empathy opens lines of communication, empowering patients to share more about their concerns, medical histories, and other factors that may provide insight into their health. Patients are more likely to participate in crafting and following treatment plans and trust their providers. Additionally, healthcare professionals that practice empathy report lower levels of burnout ( and depression.

In his article on empathy in medicine (, Dr. Elliot M. Hirsch recalled role-playing and writing reflections as part of the empathy training he received in medical school. He went on to say that many of his fellow students viewed them as a waste of time. The culture in medicine and medical school dictates that softer skills are less valuable than quantifiable subjects. Barriers to practicing empathy point to larger issues within healthcare systems.

To remedy this, institutions can encourage and incentivize treating patients ( empathetically. When systems reward treating patients quickly or focus on treating symptoms rather than root causes, practitioners receive the message that empathetic behaviors are not valuable and will not lead to success.

For those wishing to improve their skills, education is key. It can take many forms ( including, "journaling, art, and role-play." Training ( can also include presentations and hands-on workshops about building self-awareness, finding commonalities, and respecting differences.
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