Empathy 101: In the age of healthcare tech, it means even more

While empathy has always been an important trait among healthcare professionals, studies show it’s due to become a competitive differentiator as AI allows more healthcare roles to be turned over to efficient but impartial machines.

As common illnesses are now diagnosed online, vital signs are monitored by digital devices and medications are administered by computer, human practitioners are increasingly being reserved for the face-to-face tasks that can’t be handled digitally. As such, those skilled in such “high-touch” interactions are standing out from the crowd.

“The healthcare industry will be led by businesses that ‘put people first,’ effectively complementing people with technology rather than replacing them,” advises Kaveh Safavi in Techcrunch. “Technology will augment clinical care and aid human decision-making, giving individuals the space to harness the uniquely human character and social skills that are the building blocks of healthcare.”

But that’s not the only reason for health organizations to teach and encourage empathy, and to hire people who display the trait. Research shows the practice can lead to tangible medical and financial results.

“A growing number of trials show enhanced practitioner empathy can reduce pain and anxiety, together with several other health outcomes, while improving general quality of care,” reads a study published by the Royal Society of Medicine this year. “Empathetic care also increases patient satisfaction, and can benefit the growing number of multi-morbid patients, increase practitioner well-being while reducing stress and burnout and diminish medico-legal risks.”

The paper also suggests more empathetic care could impact health costs by reducing the need for the prescription painkillers that make up 10 percent of annual costs incurred by the NHS.

Further studies point to the power of empathy in reducing patients’ post-operative pain, boosting their immune systems, lowering hospitalization rates for diabetics and increasing the odds of survival among cancer patients and high-risk cardiac patients, report Mara Fiorese and Stefano Alice in a recent World Economic Forum article.

The physicians say the grueling nature of many healthcare careers can cause workers to seem uncaring. But they argue that situation needs to change, starting at the educational level. While empathy is apparently innate in some people, research shows it can also be a learned skill.

“A good technique for showing compassion is simple … talk or listen, take time and touch,” they write. “Scientific literature proves this argument can be applied both to single professionals and organizations.”

Medical practitioners and clinical trial managers might consider these suggestions for incorporating more empathy into patient transactions:

  • Note that empathy is different from pity. It means recognizing, acknowledging and respecting the feelings of others, not (necessarily) feeling sorry for them.
  • Learn compassionate language. A recent study by the University of Rochester Medical Center identifies the three main components of compassion as “recognition of suffering, emotional resonance (a sense of sharing and connection) and movement towards addressing the suffering.” Researchers evaluated tone of voice and methods of conveying tenderness, understanding, reassurance and psychological comfort, then pinpointed words and phrases that communicate empathy. An example provided, “Good to see you. I’m sorry. It sounds like you’ve had a tough, tough week.”
  • Use humor strategically. It can be an effective form of empathy as long as it doesn’t negate the seriousness of a situation. The URMC study pointed to this example of a doctor’s response to a patient complaining about a drug patch: “Who wants a patch that makes you drowsy, constipated and fuzzy? I’ll pass, thank you very much.”
  • Be aware of your non-verbal communication. For better or worse, your body language, pauses, sighs and voice quality (tone, pitch and loudness) reveal much of what you’re really thinking.
  • Understand empathy may require patience. “During the process, physicians must challenge themselves to stay with a difficult discussion, which opens the door for the patient to admit uncertainty and grieve the loss of normalcy in life,” notes a press release on the URMC study.

Practicing empathy won’t always be easy for healthcare workers who work long hours under grueling conditions. But in his book “Time to Care,” anesthesiologist Dr. Robin Youngson discusses how it could help many rediscover job satisfaction.

“Most health professionals I know spend a huge amount of time and effort every day limiting their contact with patients,” he explains. “It’s exhausting, managing all this demand. When you learn to trust your patients better, it’s such a relief to put all that effort aside. The more you take down your barriers and defenses, the less patients will take advantage of you … and they’ll do a better job of helping themselves.”







BlogLindsey Kuhl