Could Empathy Be a Key Driver for Healthcare Improvements?

July 19, 2017 Samantha Relich

We all worry about our health from time to time.

Usually when it happens we seek advice. Sometimes all we really need is reassurance – someone to listen to what we say, show compassion and then let us know what the best steps forward are.

According to a recent study out of Yale University in PLOS ONE, patients consider that middle part – or empathy, to put a name to it – to be an important factor in how competent healthcare professionals are at their jobs. According to the study, patients want to relate to their providers and vice versa (in addition to traditional standards of professionalism).

And while it may come as a surprise that empathy can have a measurable impact, according to the study it can. In fact, empathy was linked to multiple improvements in healthcare including:

  • Increased patient satisfaction
  • Good patient rapport
  • Increased adherence to treatment
  • Increased diagnostic accuracy
  • Reduced medical errors
  • Positive health outcomes

The PLOS ONE study is just one of several recent discussions about the value of empathy when shown by healthcare providers (and healthcare professionals, broadly).

Finding common ground

Empathy can be communicated in two ways – verbal and non-verbal. But, as the study’s authors highlighted, the latter has not often been covered in medical education.

There has been a shift though; starting in 2015 the Medical College Admission Test started including questions about psychology and human behavior, underlining that part of being a healthcare provider is understanding people, not just medicine.

Whether it’s verbal or non-verbal, empathy creates space for a connection – person to person – that can combat some of the alienation and disconnection that healthcare spaces can create. It also creates opportunities to transform a run-of-the-mill healthcare interaction into a quality healthcare experience.

Last week, The New York Times published an article “Doctors With Disabilities: Why They’re Important.” The article discussed the immense impact that doctors with disabilities can have because of their unique ability to connect with patients on a personal level. For these doctors, having common ground with their patients created opportunities for a deeper connection, and ultimately better care.  

Easier said than done?

Showing empathy and creating a connection isn’t overwhelmingly time consuming, but it does require a time commitment.

A recent article in PatientEngagement HIT raises interesting questions about how to balance this demand for physician empathy with the push for more efficiency through technology. In many ways, the latter is in the spotlight, being driven by meaningful use, MACRA and other regulatory requirements.

While this push for empathy may seem like another demand on healthcare professionals, according to a recent article by the American Medical Association, effective communication may also help reduce burnout.

According to the article, “At the practice level, physicians have higher proficiency and less burnout when providing increased communication with their patients.” Better communication can also mean that patients stick to their treatment plans better and leave the experience feeling heard by their providers.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that everyone working in the healthcare industry is a person with a history, opinions and emotions. As it turns out, that common ground may be just the ticket to driving improvements forward.

Patient voices can have big impact. Learn about how patient family advisory councils can make a difference in your organization with our on-demand webinar

About the Author

Samantha is part of the marketing team at RL and is passionate about sharing healthcare stories. When she's not typing away, you can find her as far from the city as possible with a book and a kayak.

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