Clinical Empathy Links to Positive Outcomes
Communication plays a critical role in the world of medicine. Unfortunately, many physicians consider the practice of communication one of the most difficult procedures when treating patients successfully and effectively.
Evidence-based studies indicate strong communication between physicians and patients is associated with positive clinical outcomes. When providers take the appropriate time to respond to patients in a verbal and/or nonverbal manner, there is typically a corresponding rise in patient compliance, patient satisfaction, and even increase physician engagement.
Communication errors are critical
Recent studies completed by the Joint Commission report that communication failures were a root cause of more than 70% of serious adverse health outcomes. Researchers are finding few providers are trained in effective communication techniques, especially as it relates to demonstrating empathy at the bedside.
Providers are trained to diagnose their patients and discuss options within a treatment plan, but they are not necessarily taught how to relate to their patients. Communication assists with positive clinical outcomes, but many findings show that implementing clinical empathy builds a stronger foundation between providers and patients.
The difficulties of demonstrating clinical empathy
Clinical empathy can be a challenging skill to demonstrate when interacting with patients. In recent interviews, providers openly admitted they find it difficult to relate to patients. Some find it emotionally exhausting to constantly have to express how a patient may be feeling. Other providers stated how there are times when they clinically detach themselves emotionally and just communicate the care plan.
Another barrier providers encounter is they are not allotted the appropriate amount of time to spend with their patients. Due to lack of time, providers struggle to incorporate clinical empathy to gain a stronger understand of their patients’ feelings. This is both frustrating for the providers and patients.
A desire for empathy exists
Regardless of the challenges, one common theme during the interviewing process with providers is they want to help and advocate for their patients. Providers want to understand their patients’ feelings, establish trust, and lay the groundwork for a strong provider-to-patient relationship.
In a recent interview with Dr. Peter Cotton, SE Healthcare Quality Consulting Board Member, he shared the importance of integrating communication and clinical empathy while working with patients.
“To me, “clinical empathy” is the essence of doctoring, the ability to “feel” for the patient’s concerns and issues, while remaining objective enough to respond appropriately to them. I guess my own approach to patients was formed before medical school, by watching my father, a primary care physician in rural England in the 1940s, an era before antibiotics. Empathy was then far more powerful than pharmacy. When I became a gastroenterologist, it was a contemplative specialty with few effective tools. That all changed with the endoscopy revolution, to the extent that nowadays many in practice spend all day inside patient’s intestines with little time to enquire about or address their anxieties. Indeed, a hero of mine, Solly Marks, the godfather of South African gastroenterology, once rebuked me by saying ‘Peter, you should be dealing with the whole patient, not just the hole in the patient’. We try.” – Dr. Peter Cotton
Going beyond the science
As Dr. Cotton suggests, responding appropriately with empathy at the bedside is a starting point to building relationships with patients. According to the American Association of Medical Colleges, “A good doctor requires an understanding of people, not just science.” Providers are being held accountable for improving patient satisfaction. Healthcare practices and systems are increasing awareness on how important it is for providers to develop a personal relationship with patients.
Practices and hospitals are driving initiatives to incorporate empathy training. This specific training also benefits providers in conquering physician burnout. Practices and hospitals want to avoid the consequences associated with lacking communication and not incorporating clinical empathy at the patient’s bedside. Findings show that an absence of relationship development, communication, and empathy could potentially result in malpractice cases. These healthcare systems and practices cannot stress enough how important it is to utilize empathic approaches. Not only is it self-rewarding for the provider, but it also helps to develop a positive foundation with his or her patients.
Communication is a key component to starting the provider-to-patient relationship, but empathy allows a patient to feel valued and respected. Clinical empathy encourages patients to take charge of their health and improve outcomes. Despite the barriers, engaging patients with empathy will enhance the communication and trust allowing for strong, positive clinical outcomes.