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Showing Empathy Impacts Practices on Multiple Levels


If physicians want to take a positive step toward improving patient satisfaction, avoiding medical malpractice, and positively impacting their practice's bottom line, they don't have to go so far as to say, "I'm sorry." All they have to do is show empathy.

Doctor and patient

It was decades ago—1976 to be exact—when Elton John released his hit song “Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word.” It was true then, and it still rings true today.

But if physicians want to take a positive step toward improving patient satisfaction, avoiding medical malpractice, and positively impacting their practice’s bottom line, they don’t have to go so far as to say, “I’m sorry.” All they have to do is show empathy.

However, that’s easier said than done.

“There’s such a disconnect between doctors and patients,” explains Sue Larsen, chief operating officer for Astute Doctor Education, a company that provides education to large hospitals, health systems, and medical groups on the value and important of better communication and engagement with patients. “I don’t think anybody intentionally tries to lack empathy with their patients, but it happens. And it’s widespread.”

Assessing the Problem

Larsen says that in consultations with their physicians, 50% of patients don’t feel comfortable revealing their medical concerns because they don’t trust that their feedback will be taken seriously. In addition, she says that half of all patient-physician consultations end with patients disagreeing with their doctors about their diagnosis.

“Those are damning statistics,” Larsen says. “So you can imagine that when a patient feels that empathy is lacking, that the physician is not really engaged with them, it absolutely impacts the treatment strategy.”

Part of the problem, Larsen says, is the false belief that empathy comes naturally. Switching gears between analyzing data to assemble a diagnosis and then relaying the information to the patient in a way that demonstrates the physician cares, understands what they’re going through, and is not judging them doesn’t happen just by flipping a switch.

“There’s so much work that has been done on the kinds of conversations and behaviors that patients receive that it takes the guess work out of understanding how to be empathetic,” Larsen says. “We know what physicians can do to show patients they care; to show them empathy.”

Unfortunately, attempts to bring that to fruition have often fallen short.

Learning to Listen

Active listening is key if physicians want to demonstrate empathy while improving patient engagement. That means staying silent when the patient is speaking; even allowing a 3-second pause, a period of silence to occur, after the patient has finished speaking.

“The power of the pause,” Larsen calls it.

She explains that, inevitably, patients are not finished speaking even though it may appear they are. Allowing a 3-second pause gives them the opportunity to fully contribute to the conversation. That, Larsen stresses, is often where some of the most important clues to the diagnosis, or to the patient’s ability to implement a treatment plan, will come out.

And when the physician does speak, make certain to reframe the patient’s comments and ask appropriate questions.

“Simple things like, ‘Let me see if I have this right,’ or ‘I think what you’re saying is this,’ give the patient the opportunity to respond, ‘No, that’s not what I’m saying,’ or ‘Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying,’” Larsen explains. “Then they feel like they’re being heard.”

And patients want to be heard not just by the physician, but by everyone they come in contact with at the medical facility. From the moment they walk in for their appointment and are greeted warmly by name, everyone who comes in contact with the patient on their health care journey plays an important role in developing a culture of empathy.

“It has to permeate everybody within the health care institution,” Larsen says.

Bottom Line Impact

Larsen says that a lack of empathy can have a negative impact on the financial aspects of a medical practice in many areas.

“When you’re looking at this whole system where physicians have to do more with less, you really can’t afford to have patients who don’t speak up,” she says. “You can’t afford to have patients withhold information, because that impacts your productivity significantly.”

Patient experience scores also impact reimbursement, Larsen explains. She says that 77% of all patients refer to these scores when selecting a hospital or medical practice. If the scores are low, that will impact a practice’s ability to attract new patients and retain existing ones.

“Empathy drives patient satisfaction, which drives loyalty and comparative advantage,” she says. “It also impacts readmission rates and medical malpractice.”

Training is the key—and not just one-time training, but repetition.

“Just like other professional attributes that doctors have to develop and refine, empathy is one of those,” Larsen says. “It’s not something you set and forget. But, it’s definitely fixable.”

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