A new study suggests simple displays of empathy by a medical provider can help improve medical care.

Researchers found that clinical empathy enhances patient satisfaction with care, motivates individuals to adhere to treatment plans and lowers malpractice complaints.

The study is published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ).

“Empathy is the ability to understand another’s experience, to communicate and confirm that understanding with the other person and to then act in a helpful manner,” writes Dr. Robert Buckman.

“Despite some overlap with other compassionate responses, particularly sympathy, empathy is distinct.”

In clinical practice, physicians do not express empathic responses frequently.

In a recent study where oncologists were video-recorded speaking with their patients, oncologists only responded to 22 percent of moments thought to be an empathic opportunity.

Another more recent study involving oncologists and lung cancer patients showed the physicians responding to only 11 percent of empathic opportunities.

There is new evidence indicating that empathy is an important medical tool and it can be acquired and taught in medical school.

“Clinical empathy is an essential medical skill that can be taught and improved, thereby producing changes in physician behaviour and patient outcomes.”

“Our profession now needs to incorporate the teaching of clinical empathy more widely into clinical practice at all levels beginning with the selection of candidates for medical school,” write the authors.

“The behavioral aspects of empathy — the empathic response — can be assessed and integrated into medical schools’ core communication skills training.”

The authors conclude that physicians must also model an empathetic approach to patient care in the teaching environment.

Source: Canadian Medical Association Journal