Among these are decoding patient expressions, determining nonverbal emotional cues of patients (i.e., not only about getting the facts about symptoms but also about interpreting how the patient is affected by the symptoms), and asking open-ended questions to gain perspective on the patient, as well as gaining emotional intelligence and emotional regulation skills, said Dr. Riess.
Explore This IssueDecember 2015
Stacey T. Gray, MD, program director at the Harvard Otolaryngology Residency Program at Massachusetts Eye and Ear in Boston, highlighted the importance of this training for residents in particular, who are experiencing, among other things, increased stress levels due to long hours and lack of control over their own schedules, resulting in a reduced ability to be attuned to the emotional needs of their patients. “What I have found is that just talking about empathy and making sure residents know this is something that is valued actually helps, because it makes empathy a bigger focus,” she said. “If you’re not specific about it in training, the residents may miss that point.”
For Dr. Gray, who was trained at a time when physician modeling was the key to learning both technique and empathy in the clinical setting, this practitioner model no longer works as it did because of the rapid changes taking place in healthcare, which demand less time with patients and more with technology. “It’s harder to express empathy with patients if you don’t have a history to build on,” she said, “so we emphasize empathy with people who are in training.”
G. Richard Holt, MD, MSE, MPH, professor emeritus in the department of otolaryngology and head and neck surgery at The University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, highlighted the important role of educators in guiding young physicians to understand the role and importance of empathy in clinical practice. “For the educator, one must understand the spectrum of empathy found in physicians and guide improvement and appropriateness,” he said. “We have so many assaults on the patient-physician relationship that empathy can be lost in the midst of electronic health records, shorter patient contact times, onerous regulations and laws, and financial issues.”
In advocating for honesty, compassion, and empathy in every patient-physician encounter, Dr. Holt said that these traits may be especially important in patients with cancer of the head, neck, and face, situations in which outcomes are uncertain. “The patient is scared and needs an empathetic surgeon to provide a special level of caring in the relationship to help the patient and family through tough times,” he said.
Evidence on Empathy Training
The pilot study found that residents’ knowledge of the physiology and neurobiology of empathy significantly increased after the empathy training, as did their self-reported capacity to empathize with their patients.