Impact of Empathy in the Patient-Doctor Relationship

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


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.


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.


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 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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Authored by: Tara Heath

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Too bad they don’t teach empathy in Medical School. Right now I have no doctor at all because I refuse to return to the doctor I’d been seeing for over 20 years. He has no empathy, lousy communication skills, and doesn’t listen or make eye contact. Finding a new doctor is a crap-shoot.


Good luck with that! Only one do tor so far & she was a nurse practitioner, wonderful, caring & knowledgeable person. Unfortunately she had to return due to her health problems. I miss her terribly. The pain management where I go, not one if the practitioners even care, have no answers or give no help when I ask what I can to do now for pain control & my primary care doctor is no better. It’s so sad & disheartening.


Tara- great way to break this issue down. I admire your talent to write! This is really getting to be a serious issue with many people and their experiences with Doctors!


I’m grateful to have a DR. That listens….understands..and will do what she can to get what tests…I need…
As for my opiate tapering off? She regularly checks in on my good and bad times yo see if she can help…
I’m blessed to have this DR.

Suzanne Urban

In my quest to find new doctors in new state of IN. where my recent move took me, I wish now that I was still back in my state, TX. There I had my dr.s compassion, care, not to mention all always friendly. This new place is upsetting to say the least, my severe pain stems failed spinal surgery, cervical is screws and plate with C-1 and C-7 my neurosurgeon says to dangerous to operate again, well the list of pain is head to toe, I had my pain meds. until July of this year with blessings from my old doctor. This is where the the horrors start now, every dr. I’ve seen to help me has been rude, sarcastic, finger pointing, list goes on, I’ve kept notes, If I’d had a tape recorder, well you get the picture. Anyway the last pain doctor I saw for a second time, this is unbelievable but here goes, went for my second appointment, first this is they tell me I have to send for my own med. records because they can’t for some lame reason, hearing this I became frustrated, knowing the records are indeed there, they been sent 4 times to 3 dr.s……this girl said I upset her with my tone of voice, said I was disrespectful and she was calling security and the police, she stormed out of exam room an office manage came in we spoke all was fine she was the only friendly one there that was concerned for me, by the way my medical records were there all the time…….yikes…so in walks the dr. she made excuses proceeded to tell me I would have to go to physical therapy for pain management only for help, I ask questions since pain has been going on for 27 years now, she does not stop talking but pauses only to yell one word “Talking” and goes back into her speech to me, this happened until I finally said that I needed to find a dr. closer to my new home, she said “Talking” again. Manage gave me my records, police were there, I’m searching for another dr. very tired now. sorry this was long.

William Dorn

Doctors do not care anymore. If they did they would band together and tell the government to stay out of medicine. Their silence tells it all.


Here I am once again ready to try another pain Dr. The one I have now could care less about me! The days before my next appointments I am anxious, have nightmares am am the worst bitch to get along with. She was ok before the CDC jumpe d in. Then a complete turnaround! Thank you for this article! It makes me more determined to try to find that pain Dr. who cares!


I have been lucky enough to find a very compassionate doctor in my rural town. Moved here almost 10 yrs. ago. I have been a long term chronic illness patient for 19 years. The first 2 years after relocating were an absolute nightmare. Had a GREAT doctor in my other state…but after moving, no doctor wanted to help. I FINALLY found a doctor about 7 yrs. Ago, willing to help me, and I am still so blessed to have him in my life! Although, this false opioid epidemic against pain patients is still a problem, he has continued to treat me with the utmost respect, compassion and care.
I am sure he knows who he is. He is a Southern Oregon doctor who follows NPR. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for believing in me & continuing to treat me.
Thanks, Doc! You are the reason I am still here!

Katie Olmstead

While having 20 years of chronic pain is no picnic, I have come across some of the kindest doctors imaginable, and yes, it makes a difference. I could write a love poem to my primary care doctor of 31 years. I have an upcoming appointment with a neurosurgeon who is one of the kindest people I have met. On the other hand, I have had nearly abusive doctors, usually the top specialists who can’t be bothered with interactions with patients. One such doctor, I left so angry that, well, I fell apart, pretty much had a break down, had to stop working. Do human interactions matters? You bet. I’ll also throw in that it’s like the Mr Roger’s famous line of “look to the helpers.” Any time I have been in a hospital, the nurses, all the support staff, most of them, have been so kind that it made the difference between freaking out and feeling safe.

this is myself dealing with my doctor. its ridiculous, but I cant really say nothing, as many others in my shoes because we need our pain management.


Tara, you positively NAILED IT! It is getting harder and harder these days to find the combination if skills you have described. I am sure that many of those reading this post are going “I Wish” right now. The whole liability issue that is clouding pain care right now is certainly no help either. With Doctors fearing for their practices and even freedom has a very negative impact on the potential for a meaningful doctor patient relationship. I know how fortunate I am to have the team I have and I hope others can find, or have found similar. Thankyou for this most important post at a time it is sorely needed.


There is no compassion or empathy left. I have been talk too so mean, accused of being things im mot. I trust no drs anymore