Empathy in Health Care: 11 Tips To Improve This Skill

Updated December 12, 2022

An older patient sits on a pedal machine while a health care professional dressed in white explains how to use the physical therapy equipment. Other equipment is in the background.

The term "empathy" refers to a person's ability to understand and relate to another person's emotions and feelings. It's an important skill, especially in health care, because professionals often navigate health issues and questions that prioritize a patient's emotions. Showing empathy can help build trust, calm anxiety and improve health outcomes in patients, so learning how to develop your empathy skills can help you succeed in a health care career.

In this article, we explain what empathy in health care is, list its benefits and offer 11 tips for improving your skills in this area.

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What is empathy in health care?

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. In health care, empathy has multiple connotations and includes cognitive, affective and behavioral aspects. It refers to the ability to recognize and validate a patient's concerns, apprehensions, anxieties, fears and pains.

It also involves understanding patients' emotions and feelings and their situations to make more accurate diagnoses and treatment plans. Besides compassion, empathy is important for developing a therapeutic relationship with patients. Improving relationships can increase patient loyalty and communication, which can lead to better health outcomes.

Health care professionals, such as doctors, surgeons, nurses, specialists, physician assistants and technicians, employ empathy throughout their workdays. Being empathic involves verbal reassurance, interpreting nonverbal cues and asking questions in response to emotional cues.

It also involves caring for patients, providing assistance and support to them and their families and relieving their difficulties and problems. 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: Why Empathy in the Workplace Is Important

Benefits of empathetic health care

Many health care professionals associate empathy with positive outcomes in care, both for patients and clinicians. 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, which begins with establishing trust with your patients. When doctors, nurses, specialists and other medical professionals attempt to connect with their patients, they can create a trusting bond.

This bond improves patient loyalty, which is important for treatment continuity. It's also valuable because a patient may be more likely to share private information about their physical, mental or emotional health issues if they trust the person with whom they're speaking.

Related: 14 Ways To Build Trust in the Workplace

Increases adherence to treatment plans

Empathetic health care typically requires compassionate communication that prioritizes a patient's emotions, which can increase their openness to treatment. Empathy in health care also involves the way clinicians explain a diagnosis or treatment plan.

By listening actively and remaining attentive to nonverbal cues, clinicians are more likely to notice a person's hesitancy or uncertainty regarding medical advice. An empathetic clinician uses those cues to start a dialogue and create an outcome that improves adherence to medications, lifestyle suggestions and any other element of a treatment plan.

Related: FAQ: Why Is Empathetic Listening Important in the Workplace?

Improves a patient's experience

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

Decreases incidents of potential malpractice

Empathetic health care has the potential to lower incidents of medical malpractice, which can result from a lack of professionalism and accuracy in patient care. By engaging in empathetic communication and actions, health care professionals can strengthen connections with their patients.

This can lead to honest conversations with patients to help generate more accurate diagnoses and better management of conditions. This can help reduce errors and malpractice cases in 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 patient outcomes help medical professionals feel accomplished. This also helps prevent physician burnout and dissatisfaction with work.

Related: Patient Advocacy: Definition, Types and Examples

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11 tips for improving empathy skills

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

1. Form a personal connection

As an empathetic provider, it's important to develop a personal connection with your patient. You can start by learning how to pronounce their name as accurately as possible. They may perceive this simple gesture as a sign of respect and interest. Try to make a note in their medical records so you remember the pronunciation when you next see them.

Consider also writing a few personal details about your patients during each visit, such as documenting their life updates or significant events. Showing patients you know these personal details demonstrates you respect and care for them, which can create a mutual feeling of trust and empathy. The more you know about the patient, the more you may be likely to understand them.

2. Face patients when speaking

One step you can take toward improving your empathy skills is to face your patients when speaking to them. This is a crucial part of active listening—focusing on the speaker—and it can help people feel more comfortable within a medical environment.

Using this technique when offering guidance or delivering news regarding a diagnosis allows for a more personal connection between your patient and yourself, and it can help you interpret a person's reaction to your thoughts and ideas.

Using electronic medical records can make facing your patient(s) a bit more difficult, so consider explaining why you're looking at the computer rather than at your patient as you type. If you can, it's better to look at the patient when you ask them questions.

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 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. Inquiring about medical and surgical histories, prescription and nonprescription medications, allergies and the use of alcohol or tobacco can be a good way to begin.

Related: How To Ask Better Questions in 5 Simple Steps

5. Be patient

Health care professionals regularly interact with many patients when working in a private practice, hospital or other clinical settings, so it's important to be patient with them. Try to 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 a patient, try to let them fully explain their health history, current concerns and symptoms. Consider also ending each of your visits by asking your patient whether they have 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 can help you identify potential diagnoses. Health care providers can benefit from expanding on this and adding 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 patient's feelings regarding their condition, diagnosis or treatment plan. This practice is crucial for creating an in-depth and comprehensive patient history, and it may improve a patient's standard of care. Some medical practices, especially large organizations, offer patients access to your notes, so try to remember that and avoid including anything you wouldn't want to tell your patient in person.

Related: How To Write a Nursing Progress Note

7. Explain your focus on empathy

When you ask about a patient's well-being in detail, consider explaining how important empathy in health care is to you. When you use methods such as normalizing patient advocacy and employing active listening, your patients may compliment your workplace's prioritization of patients' feelings.

You can highlight your focus on empathy by explaining its importance in improving patient outcomes. Consider explaining 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 find a diagnosis or determine a treatment plan, it's important to outline and explain that plan clearly to the patient or their caregiver.

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

Related: How To Track Action Items in 4 Easy-To-Follow Steps

9. Seek patient feedback

If you want to know how a patient perceives your empathetic approach, you can ask them for feedback. Many medical practices use patient satisfaction surveys. You can request for it to include questions that target a positive doctor-patient relationship and physician empathy. This can offer you direct insights into what you do well and what you can improve.

10. Develop cultural respect

Understanding and respecting your patient's culture is a key component of empathetic health care. This includes respecting patients regardless of their ethnicity, race, religion, sexual orientation, geographic background, cultural background or social environment. Acknowledging a patient's beliefs, needs and individuality can demonstrate you respect them and are striving to provide the most empathetic and effective care.

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

11. Lead by example

Consider leading by example because when you show empathy, it can help others establish the same practices. You can encourage positive behavior by displaying positive traits, such as empathy, when treating patients or interacting with staff.

Other ways include following through on promises and obeying instructions. Try to show your workplace's leadership that empathy encourages positive behavior, which can help create a culture of empathy at your clinic or practice.

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