Being empathetic will help you be a better doctor and improve patient outcomes
Medical professionals beginning their careers face a number of challenges, including rising rates of burnout, patients who distrust the health care system, and incentives that prioritize patient volume over patient wellness. As you transition from medical school to your first medical job, the one essential quality that will help you meet those challenges and more is empathy.
For various reasons, some patients may challenge your medical guidance and advice. While these encounters can be frustrating, cultivating awareness is the first step toward generating an effective, non-judgmental response. Awareness begins with recognizing and acknowledging your natural emotional response, such as feeling angry when your skill and experience appear to be challenged. Non-judgmental response asks you to hold back and rise above the immediate impulse to become defensive or argue. The next step is the most challenging: showing empathy for the patients who challenge you most.
This framework is likely familiar to many families. When a child or other family member misbehaves, yelling or arguing rarely help (and often escalate the problem). A more successful approach focuses on responding (i.e., from a more mature, aware, and controlled place) instead of reacting (i.e., from an impulsive, emotionally charged place). What the individual typically needs is attention, an acknowledgement of their frustration, and an attempt to build understanding in a positive, cooperative manner. Providing these things can go a long way towards defusing the situation.
The unfortunate truth is that many patients have been treated unfairly in other medical encounters. They may have felt “dismissed” by other doctors, or may be suffering from painful, unresolved chronic symptoms that generate deep frustration and bitterness. When you truly attempt to understand the reasons behind patients’ behavior or comments, you have an opportunity to establish common ground from which you can build empathy, trust, and health literacy. Patients will then be more receptive to your medical guidance and prescribed treatments.
This approach has helped me profoundly in challenging encounters with patients, even with those who have been deeply affected by misinformation. It’s incredibly rewarding to see these patients leaving the office with a lightness and confidence that comes from feeling heard and gaining new insight into their health. I believe my ability to facilitate this outcome stems from three “common-sense” factors: believing sincerely in the value of what I’m doing, attempting to put myself in the patient’s shoes, and demonstrating I care about the patient’s well-being by prioritizing their concerns and priorities. In other words, it all comes down to empathy.
Showing empathy is good for you as well as your patients. It assists you in building a strong relationship with your patients and promotes a feeling of fulfillment as a physician, which in turn lowers your risk of burnout and fatigue. In addition, the increased trust you build with patients actually increases your effectiveness as a physician. If you’ve studied the placebo effect, you know that the way you administer a treatment to the patient makes a significant impact on its practical effectiveness. For example, in one research study comparing diabetic patientsreceiving similar treatments in the same health care setting, patients who rated their physicians as empathetic and trustworthy had superior health outcomes compared to those whose physicians were rated as less empathetic, even after controlling for gender, age, and health insurance status.
One consideration, however: some patients are so entrenched in their opinions that they may become blatantly offensive. You do not have to suffer through inappropriate behavior or hateful speech. In some instances, it is appropriate to “let the patient go” in a nonjudgmental, empathetic way, recommending that the patient may seek care elsewhere.
Empathy as a Prerequisite to Teamwork
Empathy can also serve as a foundation to effective teamwork, which is increasingly recognized as a cornerstone to health care quality, safety, and optimizing systems to deliver the best care possible on a population level. Teamwork can help health care systems on a macro level – such as identifying wasteful and potentially harmful aspects of medical practice (like overprescribing antibiotics)and on a micro level– such as coordinating care for a recently discharged, complex patient to prevent rehospitalization.
Effective teamwork, like so much else in medical practice, begins with empathy. If you’re feeling stressed, there’s a good chance that your colleagues are, too. The medical field is demanding not only for doctors but also for other health care workers, who are essential to the efficient functioning of your team. Cultivating an empathetic environment—checking in with colleagues as well as yourself—begins at the individual level, and is essential to a productive and nurturing healthcare culture.
The successful physician never stops learning, and peer interactions are one key source of this continued education. Therefore, finding an office culture and structure that supports your learning and growth is one of the most essential, and often overlooked, predictors of your success and fulfillment in medicine. When you're interviewing for your first job, it's easy to get swayed purely by compensation packages, and overlook some intangible factors such as workplace culture, administrative empathy, and peer environment. To build a sustainable and joyous career, first understand the culture, quality, and safety priorities of each organization you speak with, then make sure that practice style fits with your philosophy.
Janani Krishnaswami isa physician reviewer at UWorld. Triple board-certified in preventive medicine, internal medicine, and lifestyle medicine, she is the former Director of Wellness at the School of Medicine at UT University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. She can be reached at