Instilling empathy among doctors pays off for patient care

Story highlights

  • Clinical empathy is the ability to stand in a patient's shoes and convey the desire to help
  • Studies have linked empathy to better outcomes and a lower risk errors
  • Empathy courses are rarely required in medical training but interest is growing

(CNN)The patient was dying and she knew it. In her mid-50s, she had been battling breast cancer for years, but it had spread to her bones, causing unrelenting pain that required hospitalization. Jeremy Force, a first-year oncology fellow at Duke University Medical Center who had never met the woman, was assigned to stop by her room last November to discuss her decision to enter hospice.

Employing the skills he had just learned in a day-long course, Force sat at the end of her bed and listened intently. The woman wept, telling him she was exhausted and worried about the impact her death would have on her two daughters.
"I acknowledged how hard what she was going through was," Force said of their 15-minute conversation, "and told her I had two children, too" and that hospice was designed to provide her additional support.
    A few days later, he ran into the woman in the hall. "You're the best physician I've ever worked with," Force remembers her telling him. "I was blown away," he says. "It was such an honor."
    Force credits "Oncotalk," a course required of Duke's oncology fellows, for the unexpected accolade. Developed by medical faculty at Duke, the University of Pittsburgh and several other medical schools, "Oncotalk" is part of a burgeoning effort to teach doctors an essential but often overlooked skill: clinical empathy. Unlike sympathy, which is defined as feeling sorry for another person, clinical empathy is the ability to stand in a patient's shoes and to convey an understanding of the patient's situation as well as the desire to help.
    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.
    Studies have linked empathy to greater patient satisfaction, better outcomes, decreased physician burnout and a lower risk of malpractice suits and errors. Beginning this year, the Medical College Admission Test will contain questions involving human behavior and psychol