Since then, more than 800 physicians across specialties have participated in the training, and with good reason: The benefits go beyond increasing doctors’ ability to empathize. Physicians who exhibit empathy also have patients who are more likely to adhere to treatment plans and have better medical outcomes.
Explore this issue:November 2012
Why Empathy Training for Otolaryngologists?
Otolaryngologists are increasingly serving patients with mental health issues. As of 2010, 1.5 million veterans had service-related auditory problems, making hearing loss and tinnitus the top two disabilities among veterans, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. More recently, researchers at Yeshiva University found that young children with sleep apnea and other sleep-disordered breathing issues are more likely to be hyperactive and aggressive (Pediatrics. 2012;129(4):e857-e865).
Patients with conditions that require long-term follow up and care, such as head and neck cancers and chronic rhinosinusitis, also face emotional and physical challenges. “These conditions affect the way patients interact with the outside world by altering the way they eat, the way they speak, the way they look,” said Stacey Gray, MD, co-director of the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Sinus Center at MEEI. “This can have a profound effect on their quality of life.”
Otolaryngologists who specialize in pediatrics have to try to understand the feelings of their patients and their patients’ parents, who may get nervous about even minor procedures, said Dr. Konowitz. “We as doctors think of [some of these procedures] as something so simple. But understanding what a parent is going through is important. This is their child.”
Research shows that when these patients feel they have empathetic physicians, they also have better medical outcomes. In a 2011 study, 56 percent of diabetes patients who felt that they had empathetic primary caregivers were likely to have greater control over their blood sugar levels, compared with 40 percent who felt their providers were not empathetic (Acad Med. 2011;86(3):359-364). In another study that same year, patients who thought their physicians were empathetic were more likely to adhere to treatment recommendations for preventive tests such as mammograms and colonoscopies (Int J Med Educ. 2010;1:83-87).
Understanding a patient’s perspective is also important for practical reasons. “Currently, our performance and outcomes are being measured and judged,” said Dr. Gray. “How we perform on these metrics will eventually translate into how we are reimbursed, [and] many outcome measures are related to patient satisfaction. Developing a deeper connection with our patients through empathetic care can translate into improved patient satisfaction.”