Empathy makes you a better doctor

It’s just common sense that doctors who have empathy make better doctors. However, until now, the benefit to patients has not been quantified, which makes it difficult for doctors and quality controllers to put a value on being nice.

For our research paper, which is published in the latest issue of the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, we looked at 28 clinical trials involving more than 6000 patients and focused on the effects of empathy or positive communication in healthcare consultations. These trials included data from consultations on a wide range of clinical conditions including pain, asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, osteoarthritis and recovery after injury. What we found was that in pain trials, when enhanced empathy expressed by doctors was compared with usual care, patients reported, on average, and additional half point reduction in pain , on a ten-point visual scale.

What we found was that in pain trials, when enhanced empathy expressed by doctors was compared with usual care, patients reported, on average, and additional half point reduction in pain , on a ten-point visual scale.

When doctors communicated positive and reassuring messages to patients with the intention of improving a patient’s expectations, patients reported to be 5-20 % more satisfied with their treatment compared to those that received standard care as well as slightly improved quality of life.

Only two of 28 studies showed no benefit from a doctor being empathetic, but this is statistically probable and the variation reflects the way that different studies were conducted.

Doctors can do much more than prescribe drugs and other treatments to help patients suffering from mild to moderate pain. Based on the clinical trials we reviewed, the potential of these kinds of interventions to help many – perhaps most – patients in general practice appears to be promising. Whether patients need drugs or not, adding a dose of empathy may be likely to reduce their pain and lower their anxiety.

Whatever else, empathy does no harm and it is also something that is innate in human beings, unless they are psychopaths. When I teach medical students, they have told me that they feel they have too little time to be as empathetic as they would wish.

Whatever else, empathy does no harm and it is also something that is innate in human beings, unless they are psychopaths. When I teach medical students, they have told me that they feel they have too little time to be as empathetic as they would wish.

The average GP appointment in the UK lasts for 9 minutes and 20 seconds, far lower than typical appointments in Sweden, Germany and the US and Canada. There is also the pressure of form filling during appointments, which means there is less eye contact. Only a minority of doctors think that empathy is a waste of time, but they do feel too rushed sometimes to listen and engage with their patients.

Medical students can also be taught ways to communicate better with patients in short time frames and put people at their ease. In the studies we reviewed, training for doctors lasted between four hours and two days and included video sessions, where they were filmed during patient consultations and then asked to look at the tapes. This was a good way to highlight how small changes, such as holding eye contact with patients, made a big difference.
And it’s not just the soft stuff, such as improving morale and comforting patients who are ill. Without empathy, doctors won’t listen and get the whole story from the patient, which could lead to errors in diagnosis and ultimately treatment.

Effects of empathetic and positive communication in healthcare consultations: a systematic review and meta analysis was undertaken by researchers at the Universities of Oxford and Southampton in the UK and the Netherlands Institute for Health Services Research and Lithuania’s Vilnius Gediminas Technical University.

Dr Jeremy Howick

Dr Jeremy Howick

Dr Jeremy Howick is senior research and director of the Oxford Empathy Programme, Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, University of Oxford. He is also author of Doctor You.
Dr Jeremy Howick

Latest posts by Dr Jeremy Howick (see all)

Share:  

More in this category

2
Leave a Reply

Please Login to comment
2 Comment threads
0 Thread replies
0 Followers
 
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
2 Comment authors
SharwanR.Ross Recent comment authors
  Subscribe  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
R.Ross
Member
R.Ross

Doctors once knew this. In this age of materialistic reductionist mechanistic medicine, few know it and none are taught it.

Sharwan
Member
Sharwan

Join the discussion This article reminds me of the story of one such doctor in India who was so much respected, that is proven by the fact that his statue can be see outside the psychiatry department in PGI ( a Govt medical college) Rohtak, India, where he served the psychiatry patients through out his life with greatest possible devotion, dedication and commitment ever exhibited by a doctor in any part of the world, without looking for any commissions from either the pharma companies, or the engineering companies etc etc. In fact, he spent money on patients care himself, gave… Read more »