The Benefits of Clinical Empathy

We’ve all had experiences where clinical empathy may have been lacking. After a rough doctor’s appointment, we go home, shake our heads, and wonder: How could my doctor have said that? Have they ever been sick a day in their life and needed a little understanding?”

Kaiser Health News recently published an interesting article studying work to increase empathy among clinicians: Efforts to Instill Empathy Among Doctors Is Paying Dividends. The study focuses on empathy training for doctors that work with cancer patients, but the results are definitely relatable to other areas of health care.

“Clinical empathy was once dismissively known as ‘good bedside manner’ and traditionally regarded as far less important than technical acumen. But a spate of studies in the past decade has found that it is no mere frill. Increasingly, empathy is considered essential to establishing trust, the foundation of a good doctor-patient relationship.”

I couldn’t agree more. Who’s going to confide in a doctor that doesn’t listen and is a jerk? Let’s face it, basic good care starts with being able to talk with your clinicians. For a long time patients basically had to tolerate jerk doctors with the understanding (or hope) that based on medical knowledge they would be able to help. However, the research now supports that empathy is a must, not just a ‘nice to have’ quality.

“Studies have linked empathy to greater patient satisfaction, better outcomes, decreased physician burnout and a lower risk of malpractice suits and errors.”

From the patient perspective, I’m excited that research is showing the benefits of empathy—what’s better for us than improved health outcomes?!

Over the years I’ve accumulated a good number of horrible experiences from bad clinicians with zero empathy. I’m 100 percent certain that recovery from my first knee replacements was slowed by a mean orthopedic surgeon. He didn’t perform the surgery, but was my local follow-up doctor because my surgeon was several hours from home. After every check-up visit I felt worse because he always yelled at me for recovering too slow, supposedly not working hard enough (despite physical therapy every day of the week), and manhandled me to the point of fresh, hot pain. It got so bad, I would physically feel sick before my appointments. When I saw him less (or stopped completely), I began feeling better—low and behold, I recovered!

On the bright side, I have really good doctors right now. I adore my rheumatologist, in particular because he always asks how I’m doing, not just with my RA but also with my life. This matters because when my RA is worse, life is harder and vice versa. This level of trust means I am forthright with my doctor, especially when I have new or worse symptoms. Honesty is better for the healthcare relationship so that issues can be addressed early.

One aspect the studies on empathy have not considered is loyalty. In a competitive healthcare context, where patients can fire doctors and move to other practices or hospitals, loyalty is key for keeping patients engaged. With my current doctors and the relationships they have built based on empathy, I have a high level of loyalty to their practices. This was definitely not true for previous doctors I had, which means they lose patients and their practices suffer with the churn.

Overall, there’s a lot to be said about empathy in the clinical setting. I’m encouraged by this kind of research and hope that more medical schools and health practices teach and nurture empathy.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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