New Prescription for Improved Physician-Patient Communication: Empathy

The relationship between patient and physician is one that becomes more important as adults get older and begin to approach later life. Aside from a physician’s medical know-how, research suggests that there is another component that is arguably just as important between medical service provider and receiver—and that component is empathy.

Aside from merely making a patient feel at ease in their presence, literature suggests that doctors who display a warm manner with their patients lead them to be more forthcoming and revealing about their symptoms, which allows physicians to make more accurate diagnoses and provide better overall care.

Now, although the notion of emotional labor (i.e., the act of expressing organizationally desired emotions during service transactions), is not an entirely new concept, it is somewhat novel in the medical field. It has only been within the past decade that there has been a push for medical professionals to engage in empathic behaviors for the purpose of increasing the quality of the overall experience between physician and patient.

Some researchers have suggested empathy training for physicians to help them develop more sound emotional labor related skills, moving them closer to a whole person model of wellness. In this scenario, empathy is defined as a “psychological process that encompasses a collection of affective, cognitive, and behavioral mechanisms and outcomes in reaction to the observed experience of another.”

Because empathic processes are an ongoing process involving interpreting emotions of another individual, the core outcomes are both intra- and interpersonal. Empathy on the part of the physician impacts how the patient feels, thinks, and behaves. For example, good empathic communication on the part of the physician has been found to mitigate patients’ self-reported feelings of anxiety.

In sum, a plethora of benefits appear to be reaped by both physicians and patients from a patient/care model that emphasizes empathy—more so than traditional medical models of care. Although the research on emotional labor is not ground-breaking, it still lacks thorough application in the community of medical practitioners. As the older adult population continues to grow, medical practitioners who hope to set themselves apart from the rest may opt for a more person-centered and empathic approach to medicine that has typically been seen in the past.

Boodman S. New courses on empathy train physicians to heal by listening and caring. Health Herald-Tribune. 24, 2015.

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