Patient-centered care requires physician empathy training

Although few medical schools currently require empathy training, there is a growing interest in the subject as the healthcare industry focuses on the need to provide patient-centered care.

In years past, clinical empathy was simply viewed as part of having a good bedside manner, but since then, research increasingly indicates it is a non-negotiable part of the doctor-patient relationship, according to the Washington Post. 

Physicians who have empathy--the ability to convey an understanding of the patient's situation as well as a desire to help--often receive higher patient satisfaction scores--a priority in the industry--and improved outcomes, as well as a reduced risk of malpractice suits, errors and burnout. As such, beginning this year the Medical College Admission Test will include questions relating to psychology and behavioral science.

And programs are under way to help train doctors on this essential skill. "Oncotalk," developed in collaboration by Duke University, the University of Pittsburgh and several other schools, is now a requirement for Duke's oncology fellows. And Columbia University School of Medicine has introduced a narrative medicine program that trains doctors to provide more compassionate care by understanding patients' life stories.

Similarly, Partners HealthCare, Massachusetts' largest healthcare provider, requires its 2,000 residents to take "Empathetics," a series of online clinical empathy courses. A 2012 study of 100 residents found that patients assessed doctors who took the course as showing significantly better understanding of their concerns and helping them feel at ease.

Research shows doctors often have issues with empathy when they do not recognize patients' emotions such as distress, or are unsure of how to combat it.

"Doctors are explainaholics," James A. Tulsky, one of the developers of "Oncotalk," told the Post. "Our answer to distress is more information, that if a patient just understood it better, they would come around," despite the fact that in practice, further information often does little to help with patient concerns.

Despite the link between physician empathy and improved patient outcomes, a study published late last year in The Lancet Oncology suggests that physicians' objectivity can suffer if their relationships with patients veer too close into the realm of friendship, FiercePracticeManagement previously reported. Researchers found that 60 percent of physicians younger than 40 reported that their closeness to patients could prevent them from making objective decisions about those patients' care. 

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