Empathy Training as a Tool to Improve Medical Outcomes

How to Participate in Empathy Training

An additive effect

Can physicians learn empathy? Some don’t think so. “When people hear the words ‘empathy training,’ their automatic reaction is that you can’t teach someone empathy. You either have it or you don’t,” said Dr. Gray, who is also residency director at MEEI.

But Dr. Gray has seen firsthand that physicians can become more empathetic with training. As co-director with Dr. Konowitz of MEEI’s Quality, Humanism, and Professionalism (QHP) program—quarterly educational sessions on topics like professionalism and teamwork for attending physicians, fellows and residents that are incorporated into Thursday morning rounds—she was one of the key players in bringing the empathy training program to her residents. “This program simply makes time for residents to reflect on the skill of connecting with patients and provides [physicians] with tools to handle difficult patients with grace and patience.”

Physicians who are interested in participating in the training can take Dr. Riess’ three-module, three-hour online course. The first training module, which covers the neuroscience of emotions, is now available; the other two modules, which will focus on difficult patient interactions and delivering difficult news to patients, are in the works. Jointly sponsored by the Massachusetts Medical Society and Empathetics, the training is approved for continuing medical education credits and risk management credits.

Although the empathy course is not yet ready for individual users, practice groups can sign up by calling (610) 783-5350 or e-mailing info@empathetics.com. More information on the empathy training program is also available at www.empathetics.com.

After he was diagnosed with pemphigus vulgaris in 2004, Paul Konowitz, MD, lost 25 pounds, was out of work for 16 months and developed depression and a dependency on painkillers. He also received very different reactions from the 10 doctors who treated him. “I had some experiences that were totally unempathetic [with] people who I never got the feeling understood what I was going through,” he said. Leaving his oncologist’s office one day, a physician offered him a slice of pizza, which he could not eat because of the severe sores in his mouth. When he had strong abdominal pain, his gastroenterologist neglected to call him back at first with biopsy results; when he finally did call, “it was clear he did not care,” Dr. Konowitz said.

Armed with firsthand experience of the patient’s perspective, Dr. Konowitz, medical director for the South Suburban Center for Otolaryngology at Mass Eye and Ear Associates and clinical professor of otology and laryngology at Harvard Medical School, connected with Helen Riess, MD, creator of an empathy training program designed to teach physicians about the neurobiology and physiology of emotions. With Dr. Konowitz’s help, Dr. Riess later piloted her empathy training program with 11 otolaryngology residents at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary (MEEI). After participating in three 90-minute sessions, the residents reported an increased ability to empathize with their patients (Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2011;144:120-122).