Physician empathy no longer optional

A growing body of research now shows that empathy isn't just nice for physicians to have, but that compassion and strong communication skills actually affect patient outcomes, according to a new study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. Simply put, when doctors respond empathetically at appropriate times, their patients tend to be happier, more trusting in their physicians and more compliant, explains an article about the study in WebMD.

But despite its importance, physicians miss the vast majority of opportunities to demonstrate empathy to their patients, the authors wrote. The reason? "Currently, there is insufficient emphasis and time apportioned to teaching the empathic response in medical school, postgraduate training and continuing medical education," wrote Dr. Robert Buckman of the University of Toronto, and colleagues.

The good news, however, is that medical school curriculum is beginning to take the role of empathy more seriously, according to ABC News. The New York University (NYU) School of Medicine's new, patient-centric Curriculum for the 21st Century, "C21," for example, features a program that has students shadow patients rather than doctors.

Buckman and colleagues also offer advice for practicing physicians to enhance their communication skills without giving up professional distance. "It is perfectly OK for the doctor to remain detached, but it is not OK to talk detached," he said. "Acknowledging what a patient is feeling is not the same as feeling it yourself."

According C21 founder Dr. Steven Abramson, senior vice president and vice dean for education, faculty and academic affairs at NYU's Langone Medical Center, every visit, no matter how short, is an opportunity to show empathy. "Smile, put your hand on somebody, look in their eyes--don't stare into your computer as you take notes," Abramson said."You're in the life of someone that comes in for 20 minutes. Ask about their home life, their support structures."

To learn more:
- read the article in WebMD
- check out the piece from ABC News
- access the study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal

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