This article discusses the role of empathy in good clinical practice and how to teach it in order to improve the quality of medical care provided by healthcare professionals. Here, the notion is at first defined according to the Cambridge and Oxford dictionary and then again from the perspective of good clinical practice based on the requirements set by the General Medical Council (GMC) in the UK. We then describe some options that teachers have on how to teach it. They can, for example, use short videos, movies, podcasts or literature with their students.
The role of empathy in good clinical practice
An empathetic doctor´s approach creates a relaxed, safe, patient-friendly atmosphere. It is well known that a relaxed state of mind reduces pain, depression and anxiety and supports a patient´s well-being. The results of several research studies reviewed by Howick suggest that positive communication has a beneficial effect on areas such as making a correct diagnosis, reducing the length of hospital stay, more effective pain management, and increasing patient satisfaction and their quality of life. On the other hand, unfriendly doctors can cause harm by scaring patients away from the medical care they need.
Howick also claims that empathetic behaviour of healthcare professionals reduces their fatigue and prevents them from experiencing burnout. On the contrary, there are healthcare professionals and medical students who avoid being empathetic because they believe that putting themselves in patient´s shoes could be draining and lead to burnout.
The notion of empathy and its manifestation in good clinical practice
The Cambridge Online Dictionary defines empathy as “the ability to share someone else´s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person´s situation”. The Oxford Online Dictionary provides three types of situation: one can show empathy with somebody/something, feel empathy for someone/something, or it can be seen expressed between two people.
The GMC considers empathy to be a crucial communication competence. Requirements on effective communication include the following communication skills:
- You must listen to patients, take account of their views, and respond honestly to their questions.
- You must give patients the information they want or need to know in a way they can understand. You should make sure that arrangements are made, wherever possible, to meet patients´ language and communication needs.
- You must be considerate to those close to the patient and be sensitive and responsive in giving them information and support.
When it comes to building a doctor-patient relationship, healthcare professionals are obliged to build an equal partnership with their patients instead of enforcing the authoritative, doctor-centred approach:
- You must be polite and considerate.
- You must treat patients as individuals and respect their dignity and privacy.
- You must treat patients fairly and with respect whatever their life choices and beliefs.
- You must work in partnerships with patients, sharing with them the information they will need to make decisions about their care.
How to teach empathy
There are many sources available for a teacher to use with their students. You can try some of the following podcasts and videos as a starting point.
About Empathy is a series of podcasts featuring stories of patients, caregivers and healthcare providers. Podcast guests share their personal experience while the hosts reflect on those stories to help enable and support empathic interactions in the healthcare community.
Empathy project is a website which offers short videos of model situations aimed at showcasing active listening, empathetic doctor-patient conversation, breaking bad news and sharing both a doctor´s and a patient´s experience when showing empathy.
You can also check Youtube where you will find a large number of doctor-patient conversations in clinical practice, interviews and talks (e.g. TEDx Talks) or lectures given by experts who present their perspective and share their experience.
Cambridge Dictionary: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/empathy
General Medical Council: https://www.gmc-uk.org/-/media/documents/good-medical-practice—english-20200128_pdf-51527435.pdf
Oxford Dictionary: https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/empathy?q=empathy
About empathy: https://www.aboutempathy.com/
Empathy project: https://www.empathyproject.com/films