“Patient-centered care” is a phrase that’s reached buzzword status… we hear it so often that it can be easy to ignore. But the fact is, patient-centeredness is one of the four key physician leadership competencies that most of today’s hiring organizations look for.

One of the biggest components of patient-centered care is empathy. To make it simple, I like to think of empathy as the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes — to know where they’re coming from and why they feel the way they do.

For a long time, most people believed empathy was one of those skills you either had or you didn’t. But now, new studies are showing that empathy is a skill that’s easily taught, and several residency programs are incorporating empathy training into their curriculum.

This article from Medical Xpress caught my eye. It talks about a brief empathy training program implemented by Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) that’s documented in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

Basically, the program was implemented because numerous studies have shown that medical students’ empathy levels severely decline during their third year of training, when they begin working with patients. This has a lot to do with desensitization, or the idea that patients become “subjects” on a sort of assembly line, rather than individual human beings.

While unfortunate, this is understandable. Desensitization — at least to some extent — is a coping mechanism we need to protect ourselves. If we were emotionally invested in every patient, how draining would that be?

However, a lack of empathy can lead to a cold or rushed bedside manner, which makes patients uneasy. That uneasiness translates into lower patient satisfaction, and — in some cases — an increase in malpractice complaints.

What I’m saying is, it’s good to be nice for the sake of being the best person you can be. But it’s also good to be nice because if you’re not, you could be jeopardizing your career without even realizing it.

I’m glad to see that empathy is a skill that more residency programs are becoming aware of and implementing into their training programs. (Here’s another article on the subject if you’re interested.)

As a practicing physician, I think it’s one of the most important tools I use on a daily basis. If you’re curious about how you can increase your empathy for patients, here are a few quick tips that I think are great to start with:

1) Make Empathy a Priority

It’s easy to lose sense of your priorities when you’re working with a patient. When you’re trying to do the best job possible, your mind often switches to “clinical” mode, and that’s all you think about.

The next time you’re about to work with a patient, take a quick second beforehand and be intentional. All that means is telling yourself, “I am going to do my best to put myself in this person’s shoes.”

2) Practice Mindfulness to Increase Empathy

“Mindfulness” is one of those slippery, new-agey words that scares some people away. But the fact is, it’s an incredibly simple tool that everyone can use. It isn’t difficult. To be mindful in a situation, you just need to be intentional.

Rather than acting (or reacting) to a situation, take time to have an inner dialogue with yourself — one that isn’t frantic. As you’re working with a patient, pay attention to his or her gestures, actions and words. Ask yourself how you can make the situation better and more comfortable. You’d be amazed at what a difference this can make.

For more information about mindfulness, read the comments on my KevinMD post about depression in residency here.

3) Remember that It’s Not All About the Patient

While empathy and patient-centeredness are things that take the patient into account first, it can be helpful to remember that these are skills that benefit you, too. Studies have shown that doctors who practice empathy skills and patient-centeredness are less likely to receive malpractice complaints.

So even if you’re having a bad day and are feeling crabby or rushed, remember… a good attitude and a caring, empathetic demeanor could be the difference between a successful career and a disastrous one.

Do you think empathy skills should be a required part of residency training? 


Though the views expressed above are solely the writer’s, Blanchard Valley Health supports “The Dose with Dr. Goodhook” and is partnering with Adventures in Medicine to create an open, inspiring and insightful community for residents and physicians. Click here to learn more about ways that Blanchard Valley Health is making practice purposeful.