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Can Empathy Be Taught? Lessons for Healthcare Hiring and Development

December 17, 2015


healthcare-eqAn interesting article on CNN.com brought me back to a topic we’ve addressed several times – the importance of physician and nursing empathy, emotional intelligence and communication skills: Instilling empathy among doctors pays off for patient care

The article points out that in a world of value-based purchasing, where reimbursement is tied to patient outcomes, including patient satisfaction, there is a growing focus on all physician and nursing behavioral skills.

Research continues to show that what was, for decades, considered the “bonus” of good bedside manner, is actually a critical component of patient well-being. Studies continue to link empathy to patient satisfaction, physician burnout and malpractice suits. For example, study of a large group or primary care physicians showed that those physicians who are more empathic have better results managing chronic disease.

The question is – what do we do with this knowledge?

  1. The realization is important. Physicians and other providers need to know that empathy, and the ability to act on it, to read patients’ needs, and respond accordingly (both components of emotional intelligence), impact patient outcomes and physician satisfaction. Physicians work to master clinical skills because they affect the patient outcome. These behavioral skills are just as important.
  1. Measure these qualities. Empathy, compassion, emotional intelligence – individuals have natural tendencies that can be measured. Some people are naturally highly empathic. Others are highly factual. Some are highly empathic – they care, but may be low in social awareness – the ability to read the needs of the patient. Measuring these natural tendencies is critical to creating individual awareness. We’ve found that we need to go beyond a basic personality test that indicates whether you are an introvert or extravert or even just that you might be low in EQ. It needs to be more specific – and it needs to be healthcare-focused.
  1. Development of relatively simple but important skills. The CNN article talks about “Oncotalk” – a course required of oncology fellows at Duke University Medical Center. It teaches “clinical empathy” – the ability to “stand in a patient’s shoes and convey an understanding of the patient’s situation as well as a desire to help.” It focuses on empathy as a “cognitive attribute” aside from someone’s innate, personality, attributes. These training programs focus on self-monitoring of reactions to the patient, improved listening skills, decoding facial expressions and body language and how to communicate – including avoiding overly technical explanations. (Providers tend to respond to patient expressions of their emotions with further facts when what the patient needs is an “empathic” response.)

We are not going to change someone’s core personality, but once they understand their natural tendencies, they can learn tools to connect to patients. Some are simple – rather than standing over a patient, sit next to them. Don’t interrupt – allow the patient a few minutes to express her concerns, put a hand on the patient, etc.

My wife works with oncology residents and she teaches them a trick: On the patient’s first visit, she makes a note about something personal – their family, a pet, something going on in their life. When they return she asks “How’s your daughter doing at college?” Oncology patients are usually in a fragile state and their treatment can often seem de-humanizing. Seeing that their provider sees them not as a disease, but as a person, is powerful and fosters faith and trust. Even residents who naturally struggle to connect to or read patients, begin to see how powerful it is for patients to see that you care about them, as a person.

The CNN article is an indication that there is a wider acceptance of the importance of these behavioral interactions. The more cynical among us, might note that it took tying reimbursement to patient satisfaction to start this discussion but it’s good that it’s taking place.

To learn more about the impact of behaviors on outcomes, download our free white paper on healthcare emotional intelligence: Becker's Hospital Review: Healthcare Emotional Intelligence



Bryan Warren Bryan Warren is the President of J3 Personica, a consulting, assessment, training, and coaching firm, and a guest blogger for PSI. Bryan is an expert in progressive talent strategies, with a particular focus on leader and physician selection and development.