Impact of Empathy in the Patient-Doctor Relationship

By Tara Heath.

Building and maintaining a meaningful relationship between the patient and doctor is contingent on placing a high priority on the patient’s needs. Not only do patients want amazing clinical skills from their doctor, but they want empathy as well. A strong emotional connection with a doctor can be equally as important to a patient’s healing process as drugs are. Patients are deeply disappointed when empathy is not a common occurrence within their patient-doctor relationship.

What is Empathy?

Empathy is the ability to understand and be aware of the feelings and emotions of others. According to the article “Practitioner Empathy and the Duration of the Common Cold,” doctors with higher rates of effectiveness display warm, reassuring, and friendly manners with their patients. Regarding medical purposes, the term empathy is described as the ability of a doctor to understand the emotions, feelings, and situations that the patient is experiencing and to help communicate with them effectively. Taking this into account, there are multiple impacts empathy has on the patient-doctor relationship.

“Taking the time to carefully listen to my patients’ concerns and offer a bit of reassurance is a vital part of the job. Any doctor can give a recommendation or diagnosis. It’s our job to have a conversation around it and let the patient know they’re in good hands.”- Jay Staub, OB/GYN at Health Central Women’s Care in Dallas

Satisfaction

Typically a stressful and daunting experience, communicating with a doctor that you can feel comfortable with can shift the mood immensely. Like other industries, the medical field strives on giving positive patient experiences. In a recent scientific study, researchers determined that patients were more satisfied with their care if they believed their doctor was empathetic to their needs. The study, consisting of 112 patients, showed that 65% of patient satisfaction was accounted for from empathy. Although excellent medical skills are important to patient care, having a doctor empathetic to situations helps improve patient experiences and happiness.

Cooperation

A major impact of empathy in the patient-doctor relationship is that patients are more susceptible to cooperate and follow the doctor’s questions and orders. When a doctor understands a patient’s feelings and relays that understanding back to them, it effectively fuels cooperation. The feeling of being seen and heard can have a calming effect that makes patients more likely to disclose medical information they wouldn’t have offered up beforehand. The more information they are willing to give, the easier it is for the doctor to come up with a solution.

Improved Patient Outcomes

Empathy should be qualified as an important part of patient care. Patients treated with higher degrees of empathy tend to be motivated to stick to their treatment plans, improving patient outcomes. However, ignoring the emotional needs during interactions can lead to patients feeling lonely and downtrodden. A deteriorating mood can easily demotivate a patient from taking proper care of themselves.

Communication

Using empathy in the medical field is a combination of both verbal and nonverbal communication. Empathy will positively impact patient-doctor relationships by closing the communication gap. While explaining a complex topic, doctors can use nonverbal cues from the patient to gauge their understanding. In turn, they proceed to adapt terminology and simplify explanations to make patients feel less hesitant and more comfortable to ask questions.

The following graph shows nonverbal cues doctors can use to help evaluate patient-doctor communication.

Better Attention

A significant benefit of empathy is the extra care it places on doctors to listen and pay attention to their patients. They will be asking open-ended questions rather than closed and will inquire further into issues to try to encourage patients to fully describe symptoms in details. While trying to understand their patients’ needs and concerns empathetically, doctors are able to better help and diagnose their patient.

Trust

Trust is the foundation that all patient-doctor relationships should be built on. On that note, trust is not built in a day. It takes repeat interactions over time to garner a person’s trustworthiness. Doctors emphasizing empathy during every interaction encourages patients to place a little more information with them each time, allowing their trust to be tested. When there is trust, the patient is less likely to turn elsewhere for their healthcare needs.

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