11 Tips To Promote Empathy as a Health Care Professional

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated March 10, 2022 | Published June 1, 2021

Updated March 10, 2022

Published June 1, 2021

Empathy represents a person's ability to understand and relate to another person's emotions and feelings. It’s a vital skill, especially in health care where you may be navigating health issues and questions that prioritize a patient's emotions. Expressing empathy can help build patient trust, calm anxiety and improve health outcomes. In this article, we explain what empathy in health care is and why it's important and offer tips for improving your skills in this area.

What is empathy in health care?

In general, empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. In health care, empathy is the recognition and validation of a patient’s fear, anxiety, pain and worry. It is the ability to understand patients’ feelings and facilitate more accurate diagnoses and caring treatment. Health care professionals such as doctors, surgeons, nurses, specialists, physician assistants and technicians employ empathy throughout their workdays. 

Being empathic involves verbal reassurance as well as interpreting body language and asking questions in response to emotional cues. Medical professionals apply these skills to every aspect of patient care such as gathering patient intake forms, considering room decor, recording patient history, taking notes and explaining treatment plans.

Related: Patient-Centered Care: Elements and Examples

Why is empathy in health care important?

Empathy is a key component in developing a strong and trusting relationship between patients and their health care providers. Improving this trust increases patient loyalty and communication, which can lead to more accurate diagnoses and better treatment plans and health outcomes. 

Empathy extends far beyond a patient’s medical history, signs and symptoms to encompass a connection and understanding that includes the patient’s mind, body and soul. Expressing empathy advances humanism in health care. Humanistic providers care “about” their patients as much as they care “for” them. They understand that compassion can be a powerful catalyst for healing. 

A study published by the National Library of Medicine found a direct correlation between empathetic communication on behalf of medical providers and the overall health outcomes of their patients. Patients want to know they are receiving the very best care, and this is best conveyed when their care team is empathetic and compassionate.

From a business sense, a strong sense of empathy in your interactions with patients is necessary to build a successful private practice. Physician empathy is a key driver of patient satisfaction. 

Related: Why Is Empathy Important in the Workplace?

Benefits of empathetic health care

Here are some benefits of practicing empathy when interacting with patients:

Builds trusting relationships

One benefit of practicing empathetic health care is its positive impact on patient relationships. When doctors, nurses, specialists and other medical professionals attempt to connect with their patients, they often create a trusting bond. This bond improves patient loyalty, which is important for the continuity of a person's health care. It's also valuable because a patient is more likely to share private information regarding their physical, mental or emotional health concerns if they trust the person with whom they're speaking.

Increases adherence to treatment plans

Empathetic health care typically requires compassionate communication that prioritizes a patient's emotions. It also involves the way they explain a diagnosis or treatment plan. By using active listening and remaining attentive to body language, providers are more likely to notice a person's hesitancy or uncertainty regarding medical advice. An empathetic provider will use those cues to start a dialogue and create an outcome that improves adherence to medications, lifestyle suggestions and any other elements of a treatment plan.

Improves a patient's experience

By designing a system in which empathy is a priority, health care providers improve their patients' overall experience. This helps ensure the longevity and effectiveness of a patient-doctor relationship and helps further develop a sense of trust and honesty. A positive experience can also improve the patient’s emotional health, symptoms, physiologic responses and pain levels.

Decreases incidents of potential malpractice

Medical malpractice often results from a lack of professionalism and accuracy in patient care. By engaging in empathetic communication and actions, health care professionals strengthen connections with their patients. This can often lead to honest conversations with patients to help generate more accurate diagnoses and better management conditions. This is likely to reduce errors and potential malpractice cases within a medical workplace.

Improves overall patient outcomes

The provider-patient connection is crucial in building loyalty, identifying private information, reducing the risk of misdiagnoses and improving compliance with medical advice. The combination of these elements contributes to a significant improvement in overall health outcomes. In return, good outcomes help medical professionals feel they’ve done their job well, which helps prevent physician burnout.

Related: The 5 Step Nursing Process

11 tips for improving empathy skills

Here are some tips for improving your empathy skills as a health care provider:

1. Make it personal

As an empathetic provider, it’s important to know your patient as more than just a name on a computer screen. Start by learning how to pronounce their name as accurately as possible. They likely will see that simple gesture as a sign of respect and interest. Make a note in their medical records so you remember the pronunciation when you next see them.

Also, take time to jot down a few personal details during each visit. Document life updates or significant events. Knowing these personal details about your patients will not only convince them that you care but will help cultivate feelings of empathy. The more you know about someone, the more you’ll be able to understand where they’re coming from.

2. Make eye contact

One step you can take toward improving your empathy skills is to make eye contact with your patients. This is a crucial part of active listening, and it can help people feel more comfortable within a medical environment. Using this technique when offering guidance or delivering news regarding a diagnosis is especially important. It allows for a more personal connection between yourself and your patient, and it can help you interpret a person's reaction to your thoughts and ideas.

Eye contact is essential, yet the use of electronic medical records often makes this difficult. Look up when you ask questions. Explain why you’re looking at the computer rather than at your patient as you type.

Related: Empathic Listening: Definition, Examples and Tips

3. Normalize advocacy

One important way to show empathy is to normalize advocacy in your practice. You can do this by implementing measures that ensure you address each patient's unique needs. For example, consider adding a section on your new patient intake form that asks people whether they want a patient advocate, medical interpreter or translator. You may also want to include an open-ended section for patients to describe any concerns and accommodations they require. This small step helps your patients realize they're entering a safe and empathetic space.

Read more: 10 Ways To Advocate for Patients

4. Ask in-depth questions

Another important tip for displaying empathy is to ask your patients in-depth questions. You may also ask similar questions to family members, patient advocates or interpreters. Their responses often improve your ability to diagnose, treat and care for patients.

5. Be patient

When working in a private practice, hospital or other clinical settings, health care professionals regularly interact with many patients. Take your time with each patient and facilitate clinical conversations to emphasize your empathy. It's crucial for building a strong patient rapport, and it may also improve trust between patients and medical staff.

When you meet with a patient, try to let them fully explain their health history, current concerns and symptoms. Let them fully answer any in-depth questions you may ask. Also, attempt to close each of your visits by asking your patient whether they have any other questions or concerns.

6. Practice descriptive note-taking

Another crucial element of empathetic health care is diligent note-taking during and after patient visits. A checklist is efficient in documenting symptoms, and it's also helpful in identifying potential diagnoses. However, health care providers can benefit from expanding upon this and adding some personalization to their documentation. For example, you can elaborate upon a patient's file by using handwritten notes.

When developing and practicing empathy, it's important to include notes about a person's feelings regarding their condition, diagnosis or treatment plan. This practice is crucial for creating an in-depth and comprehensive patient history, and it's also likely to improve a patient's standard of care.

Keep in mind that some medical practices, especially large organizations, offer patient access to your notes. Do not include something that you wouldn’t be willing to say out loud to your patient.

Related: How To Write a Nursing Progress Note

7. Explain your focus on empathy

When you employ methods such as normalizing patient advocacy and maintaining eye contact, your patients may compliment your workplace's prioritization of patients’ feelings. You can substantiate and solidify these positive feelings by expressing how important empathy in health care is to you. Consider taking time to explain why developing strong connections and positive interactions is something you strive for in your practice.

8. Provide easy-to-follow directions

Another way you can support a positive doctor-patient relationship is to provide easy-to-follow directions for after-care. After you have reached a clinical conclusion or determined a treatment plan, it's important to clearly outline and explain that plan to the patient or their advocate.

You can do this by using common terminology, writing a step-by-step list and asking questions to ensure your patient understands and agrees with your diagnosis, medical advice or treatment plan. Besides improving your skills as an empathetic health care worker, this is also likely to improve patient outcomes and adherence to medication and other medical advice.

9. Seek patient feedback

If you want to know how a patient perceives your empathetic approach, ask them for feedback. Many medical practices use patient satisfaction surveys, so ask that it include questions that target a positive doctor-patient relationship and physician empathy.

10. Develop cultural respect

Understanding and respecting your patient’s feelings is a key component of empathetic health care. That includes ethnicity, race, religion, sexual orientation, geographic background, cultural background and social environment. By acknowledging a patient’s beliefs, needs and individuality, you can provide the most empathetic and effective care.

To develop cultural competence, learn about different patient populations, cultures and experiences. Cultivating interactions with people of different cultures shows a willingness to learn, a desire to bridge backgrounds and a dedication to personalized care.

11. Lead by example

When you exhibit empathy, it helps others establish the same practices. Whether treating patients or interacting with others, you can encourage positive behavior by displaying positive traits such as empathy. Employ emotional intelligence to show leadership that it encourages positive behavior.

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