Empathy: Getting Past the Fluff

From the Clinician Reviews archives – even though this commentary was written in July 2013 the message from Ellen D. Mandel, DMH, MPA, MS Pa-C is timeless.

There has been a lot of recent news about empathy in the medical and lay press; likely because it translates into better patient satisfaction ratings (think Press-Ganey’s mission) and improved institutional finances (think patient compliance and reduced medical malpractice claims). However, isn’t empathy just a bunch of touchy-feely vegans (no-offense) talking about stuff that really doesn’t matter in the long run? Let’s see!

A working definition would be a good place to start. Empathy is actually a “cognitive” event whereby the clinician (us) “understands” what patients are feeling, but does not actually “feel” what they are feeling. Feeling a patient’s pain is considered sympathy, and too much of this leads one down the road to extra testing and/or procedures. So, how can understanding a patient’s feelings improve your patient satisfaction ratings (and maybe your pay or bonus) and keep a subpoena out of your future?

1. Recent studies reveal that physicians (insert PAs or NPs) with higher empathy scores have better clinical outcomes in improving their patients’ compliance with chronic disease management such as diabetes mellitus as well as improved advice or instruction retention in mothers with sick children. This means better A1Cs and less re-admits for sick kids.

2. Studies further reveal that empathetic residents and physicians have far fewer conversations with risk managers and are rarely sued. Lower lawsuit risks are less dependent upon severity of the medical/surgical outcome and more closely tied to empathetic behaviors; listening, eye-contact, a simple human touch, and returning phone calls. You got it, showing genuine concern and warmth (even after a long surgery) promotes a strong and trusting relationship, allowing you to do your job without adverse outcomes.

3. But does empathy actually affect you as a physician assistant or nurse practitioner? Well, yes it does. Simply being empathetic in your daily practice reduces your stress level. You say, ‘come on!’ Studies of medical residents support statistically lower medical errors, improved personal life, less depression, and greater career satisfaction in those scoring higher on a highly validated and reliable empathy survey.

4. Well, we all know that listening to your patient eats into lunch time and gets you home even later than usual. Not so. Allowing patients to present their narrative results in a better history and permits the PA/NP to actively listen and digest the information. Patients feel the difference and the time it takes, and you may find yourself ahead on the clock as well as feel better about your own performance.

Being the empathetic PA that I am (harrumph) let me and others know your feelings about empathy in your practice. Feel free to nicely and anonymously lambast, (oops I mean describe) empathy stories in your clinical world. The good and the bad are welcome! Really.