Hospitals drive satisfaction, outcomes with doc empathy

Doctor empathy is a vital but often overlooked aspect of care delivery--and as patient satisfaction becomes more important, hospitals are increasingly training physicians to understand their patients as well as treat them. 

Doctors who are rude to their colleagues can hurt medical team performance and, as a result, patient outcomes. But there's also evidence that doctors who are not empathetic toward patients can have a direct negative impact on their health. 

Helen Riess, M.D., director of the empathy and relational science program at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), told the Boston Globe that when she measured patients' physiological responses during interactions with doctors, she found that upsetting interactions exacerbate symptoms, while symptoms receded when they felt like the other party understood them.

Not only are positive doctor-patient relationships associated with better outcomes for diabetes, asthma, obesity and hypertension, they also cut the risk of malpractice lawsuits, Riess said, because "patients don't sue doctors they like, with whom they have a meaningful relationship and whose intentions were good." 

Riess developed an empathy-training curriculum based on her research. Partners, MGH's parent company and the largest hospital operator in Massachusetts, requires residents at all of its teaching hospitals to complete the three one-hour sessions. A 2012 study showed patients said graduates of the program understood their concerns far better than non-graduates, FierceHealthcare previously reported. 

The high-pressure environment of medical school may leave many doctors with rusty people skills, regardless of how much empathy they had starting out, Riess said. But empathy can be taught. The training focuses on basic skills such as eye contact, interpreting nonverbal communication and conveying full attention. It also teaches docs not to get defensive with difficult patients and how to deliver bad news.

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