Why you should embrace empathy in healthcare

Hand of doctor touching patient reassuring for encouragement and empathy to support while medical examination on the hospital.

8 min read

Chloe Mumford

In recent years there has been a notable decline in empathy among healthcare staff and practitioners. However, empathy is associated with a number of benefits for healthcare professionals, patients and providers. This is why interventions are needed to enhance empathy in healthcare, as it’s a cause for great concern. For healthcare providers, it can have a big impact on their staffing (which many are already struggling with) and can also cause further talent shortages.

In this article, we discuss why healthcare providers and practitioners should embrace empathy, and what interventions can be put in place to sustain it.

What is empathy

A healthcare reform is something that has been much discussed and is long overdue. However, there has been no attempt to improve the root causes of its deterioration. Currently, the healthcare system in place is demotivating and encourages doctors to spend 15 minutes or less with each patient to capture the most profits. Healthcare is costly, and as a result, millions of Americans are not getting the care they need.

COVID-19 came as a shock to us all, and there was extreme pressure placed on the healthcare system which resulted in high rates of burnout among nurses that was primarily caused by the shockingly high patient-to-nurse ratio. These working conditions pushed many to reconsider their career choices and led many healthcare professionals to leave their positions during the Great Resignation.

Furthermore, with a recession on the horizon, fewer people have money to spend on their healthcare.  A survey by the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) found that some families are forced to prioritize spending on other necessities rather than on healthcare. As fewer people will be using healthcare services, this shows the impact this could have on healthcare providers, who may need to reconsider budgets and therefore their resourcing needs.

A study conducted by the National Library of Medicine also demonstrated that an increase in the local unemployment rate during a recession correlates with weaker growth in the healthcare sector. Similarly, this shows that healthcare providers will be affected by the recession, and will need to rethink their spending. While there may be an increased need for nurses due to the shortage, healthcare providers might struggle to afford them during the recession.

It’s clear that the U.S. is facing the same healthcare challenges as many other countries. American healthcare providers need to rethink their approach to attracting, hiring, and managing their workers in order to survive the coming recession and provide better care for their patients.

What is the potential outcome if nothing changes?

If you asked a group of people how they would describe empathy you might get a variety of different perspectives. We tend to confuse empathy with terms like compassion and sympathy. However, their definitions are slightly different. I like to think of empathy as ‘walking in someone else’s shoes’. As a broad definition, it’s about understanding or trying to understand someone else’s perspective, even if it’s completely different from your own.

In healthcare, empathy is often looked at as clinical empathy, which in research is defined as “the ability to observe emotions in others, the ability to feel those emotions, and finally the ability to respond to those emotions”. This is because healthcare professionals cannot fully experience the suffering of each patient, If they did it could negatively affect them, causing stress and leading to burnout.

Why is it so important 

In healthcare, emotions are high – positive and negative. A patient’s situation can impact their emotions, and the reason for their hospital visit could have a positive or negative outcome. This is where empathy comes in. Observing people’s emotions allows healthcare professionals to know how to interact empathetically on a case-by-case basis.

Undoubtedly, a healthcare professional can make a huge difference to a patient through the quality of their interaction and care. We’ve all had both negative and positive healthcare experiences as a result of how empathetic we perceive a professional to be. To be frank it can make a whole world of difference for someone struggling in the hospital, and could even brighten their day.

For some patients, a hospital can be a stressful place to be and a healthcare practitioner can make all the difference by employing empathy in their approach. Healthcare providers need to be aware of that when providing training to their workers. This training will allow their healthcare workers to be properly trained on how to interact empathetically with patients, resulting in better quality patient care.

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Why having empathy is crucial for healthcare practitioners

The reason why it’s so important is the effect it can have on patients, healthcare professionals, and providers. Empathy is a powerful tool that can benefit everyone.

Benefits for patients

Great patient satisfaction

For patients having a practitioner responding to their feelings and listening to them leaves them feeling more satisfied and at ease with their visit. Having a healthcare professional that has empathy can make their experience feel more humanizing and like their emotions are being considered by practitioners. Ultimately, patients feel much more comfortable and better cared for.

Improved Health

Research has shown that patients have better outcomes when they receive medical care from physicians with a higher degree of empathy. Further research on empathy has shown that diabetic patients treated by doctors with more empathy had “a significantly lower rate of acute metabolic complications.” This shows that empathy can have a great impact on a patient’s health, highlighting the importance of healthcare professionals having more empathic concern for their patients.

Benefits for healthcare professionals

Protect them from distress and burnout

Burnout is particularly prominent in nurses. Research has shown that there is a correlation between burnout and empathy, and healthcare professionals can decrease burnout by having more empathy. Burnout could also be decreased by workers receiving more empathy from employers, as it would make it a less stressful environment to work in.

Better communication links with patients

Empathy establishes strong communication skills between a healthcare professional and a patient, which provides patients with the extra support they may need. As a result of this, the patient may communicate with the professionals more, as they would feel more trusting towards them. Consequently, the professional can identify their symptoms and assess them more easily.

Through better communication links with patients’ healthcare worker’s jobs are made much easier and they’re able to provide better patient care as a result of it. This is, after all, why they decided to work in healthcare.

Benefits for healthcare providers

Customer retention

When patients are treated with empathy, it makes them more likely to not only listen to the provider’s recommendations but also means that the patient is less likely to go to another provider.

If a patient trusts the provider they may want to maintain a relationship with them, and not want to risk turning to another provider in the future to access their healthcare needs.

Better communication links with patients

People want empathetic employers, and it’s something talent is looking at more when applying for work. This means, to attract and retain employees, providers need to reflect on how much they’re embracing empathy, and if they need to develop more skills to do so.

Research from Businessolver found that:

  • 40% of respondents would work longer hours for a more empathetic employer
  • 56% of respondents would stay in their jobs if they felt valued
  • 64% would be willing to work for less pay for a more empathetic employer.

What is causing the downfall in empathy?

Despite empathy being discussed more and more, there has been a notable decline. It’s a professional skill that is not a problem solely attributed to the healthcare professionals lack of empathy. Instead, the decline in empathy has been attributed to many environmental factors such as:

  • Long working hours
  • Understaffing
  • Insufficient time with patients
  • Pressure to meet operational targets and meet workloads

What we can do to overcome this

Embracing empathy and responding effectively to the decline of empathy in healthcare is vital. I can identify two ways to address this through the individuals and the provider.

Firstly, there needs to be more training given to staff members to teach them the skills needed to effectively use empathy with patients.

For providers, staffing issues need to be addressed. Providers need support in their staffing, and to create a framework to overcome their staffing gaps. One way to do this is to bring in travel nurses when there are staffing emergencies in the hospital.

The healthcare talent shortage has led to a lot of problems that have caused the decline of empathy. Once these issues are addressed, staff can spend more quality time with patients, and there wouldn’t be as much of a need to work longer hours.

Final thoughts

Empathy is well-needed in the current healthcare climate. However, it is clear that numerous factors are preventing us from adopting it. Healthcare providers need to address these issues to allow everyone to embrace empathy.

Providers need to look internally and discuss with their staff what is preventing them from being more empathetic towards patients. Once the problem is understood, providers need to work to address it. Which will provide immense benefits to the provider, staff members, and patients.

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