As research begins to quantify the positive effects of empathy on patient experience—from compliance with physician’s orders and reduction in errors and malpractice suits to patient outcome—medical schools are reacting and looking for ways to integrate empathy and social skills training into their curriculums.
Psychologist Mohammadreza Hojat studies physician training at Jefferson Medical College-Thomas Jefferson University and is the creator of the Jefferson Scale of Empathy. He believes that empathy can be enhanced through dedicated teaching programs. Those doctors who don’t come by it naturally can learn to increase their sense of connectedness with their patients and improve the doctor-patient relationship.
New methodologies for improving empathy include communications skills training, using positive role models as mentors and studying art and literature. Training a new generation of doctors is promising for the future of patient care. In the meantime, practicing doctors can work on developing the social skills that improve their interpersonal communication and help patients feel they are acknowledged and understood.
Some specific tips:
1. Greet patients with a smile: Nonverbal gestures go a long way in setting the stage for a positive or negative encounter with a patient. Greeting your patients with a smile puts them at ease, communicates that you are happy to give them your attention and reinforces the connection you want to build with them.
2. Use the patient’s name: Calling patients by their names when you meet serves to acknowledge their value as individuals and demonstrates your interest in them personally (rather than just clinically). It also has a very practical purpose in medicine, ensuring you are talking to the right patient.
3. Look patients in the eye: Establishing eye contact is the best way to reinforce the fact that you “see” your patients and are focused on their well-being and are not distracted by other things going on in the room.
4. Listen: Asking questions lets your patients know you respect their concerns and value their input. Give them time to talk and if they go off on an irrelevant tangent, bring them politely back to their health issue. Repeat what you have heard to demonstrate that you were listening.
5. Use verbal acknowledgement: Take the time to acknowledge a patient’s action or comment and praise them whenever possible. Use phrases such as, “I see,” “That’s right,” “You’re looking well today,” and “I can tell you’ve been working hard.” Even small pleasantries like “I love your dress/necktie/shoes” will communicate that you see them as a person and not a case.
6. Use a positive tone of voice: You can show compassion through the tone of your voice, not just the words you use. Sometimes just slowing down and taking breaths between phrases can make you sound more caring.
7. Use positive body language: Standing or sitting closer to a patient demonstrates attention and interest. When appropriate, touch can reinforce support and encouragement. Never stand at the door when you’re in conversation as that is a clear sign you think you have more important places to be.
8. Dress well: How you look does count. Sloppy clothing or hair suggests that you don’t care enough about your job or your patients to bother; or worse, that you are too overworked and tired to make sound decisions.
9. Collaborate: Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t have an answer and need to consult with another expert. As medicine becomes more complex and specialized, educated patients understand you can’t know everything and will trust a doctor who works well as a team player and has a strong network of professionals who can fill in the blanks.
For those interested in learning more about the relationship between empathy and patient outcome, you can refer to the study conducted by Dr. Hojat and his research team at Jefferson Medical College, which was published in Academic Medicine.