Three Best Practices for Showing Empathy and Compassion in Healthcare

compassion in healthcareWhile clinical staff and healthcare providers often believe they are demonstrating compassion and empathy, the truth is research has found otherwise. One study published in JAMA (The Journal of American Medicine Association) found that when discussing life-threatening diagnoses, patients offer many opportunities for empathic response, and doctors respond to only 10% of these emotional needs. Additional research also found that physicians responded to empathic opportunities in 38% of surgical cases and only in 15% to 21% of primary care cases.

According to a study published in The Canadian Medical Association Journal, demonstrating clinical empathy towards patients can increase patient satisfaction, improve patient compliance, and lower malpractice complaints. The benefits of practicing empathy and compassion in healthcare have also been shown to have a strong correlation to positive patient outcomes.

Responding to the emotional needs of patients with empathy and compassion can be challenging. Whether it is due to a lack of time, or because physicians and other care team members are more focused on other tasks such as making diagnoses and determining course of treatment, a lack of compassion will diminish any relationship.  Compassion and empathy is a critical component of the physician-patient relationship and is associated with improved patient satisfaction and compliance.

Below are three best practices that can be implemented to help establish a more empathetic approach to patient care.

1. Make it Personal

Relationships matter. Take the time to get to know a few personal details about each patient. Not only does it matter when considering treatment options, but it is also crucial for expressing compassion and empathy. This best practice can be implemented by both support staff and providers.

2. Positive Gestures

Expressing empathy and compassion include the use of nonverbal cues and positive gestures such as open body language, listening, making eye contact, taking notes, or repeating what a patient says to confirm understanding. Positive gestures demonstrate empathy and reaffirm that the patient is being listened too.

3. Ask for Feedback

Providing patients with the opportunity to share their thoughts is an important part of effective communication. Open-ended questions such as “What do you think?” or “How do you feel about that?” are effective ways to engage patients in an open discussion while demonstrating compassionate care. To determine how well the care team is providing empathetic patient care – systematically ask the patient. The use of a real-time patient feedback system with built-in service recovery functionality has demonstrated improved, and sustained levels of patient loyalty.  

Empathy and compassionate care is not only the responsibility of the healthcare provider,  but is also the responsibility of every member of the care team. Patients spend a significant portion of their time interacting with the nurses, medical assistants, and receptionists. These interactions can provide many opportunities for demonstrating compassion and empathy toward patients. Therefore, training, encouraging, and ensuring support staff engage in compassionate, empathetic patient care will significantly influence a patient’s overall experience.

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