Clinical Empathy is More Than Bedside Manner

Think “bedside manner,” and most of us conjure images of house calls and elderly family doctors. A good bedside manner is a fine quality, but when it comes to a patient’s health, this predilection toward a good nature is often secondary to considerations of experience or technical competence.

Wrong, says a recent article published in the Atlantic in cooperation with Kaiser Health News. Faced with new facts about the impact empathy can have on patient outcomes, hospitals and medical schools across the country are rethinking the place so-called clinical empathy holds in their curricula.

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

Empathy, or the ability to understand and share in the feelings of others, is no longer considered a simple personality trait like “good bedside manner.” According to Mohammadreza Hojat, a professor of psychiatry at Jefferson Medical College, “Empathy is a cognitive ability.” In turn, this means that empathy can be taught and learned.

Programs at such institutions as Duke, Harvard and Columbia University School of Medicine are leading the way in this effort. While varied, these programs all seek to encourage proactive self-monitoring among physicians “to reduce defensiveness, improve listening skills… and decode facial expressions and body language.”

Developing strong empathy skills can also benefit doctors’ own mental health and satisfaction in the long run. Beginning with an oft-cited 2012 report, a string of studies have shown that physician burnout is high and getting higher. Nearly 1 out of every 2 physicians now experiences burnout in the course of his or her career. If clinical empathy can change that, it could mean a physician workforce that is more robust, more efficient and, most importantly, happier.