Surgeon and New York Times writer Pauline Chen this week explored empathy as an "essential component" of compassionate care, highlighting a recent study that found training could improve empathetic behavior in physicians.
The study—published in Journal of General Internal Medicine—evaluates empathy training modules created by Helen Riess, director of the Empathy and Relational Science Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. The modules were designed to teach recognition of nonverbal cues in patients and strategies for dealing with physiologic responses.
How physicians learned to become warmer
To test the effectiveness of the modules, Riess asked patients to evaluate about 100 training physicians' ability to empathetically connect. Riess then divided the physicians into a control group and a group that completed three one-hour empathy training sessions.
Two months later, patients again evaluated all the physicians. Physicians who completed empathy training showed improved, while those who did not appeared to get worse at empathizing with their patients.
Specifically, the patients said that physicians trained using Riess' modules interrupted their patients less, maintained better eye contact, and were better able to remain composed if patients became agitated. Overall, physicians with empathy training appeared to develop a resistance to the "dehumanizing effects" of medical training.
According to Chen, the study is among the first to use patient evaluations of empathy instead of physician self-assessments. "The holy grail of this kind of research is whether patients think doctors are empathic, not whether the doctors think they are," Riess says.
Previous research suggests that physician empathy can increase patient satisfaction and lead to fewer medical errors, patient complaints, and malpractice suits. Riess says she plans to expand her empathy research and offer the training modules to more physicians, nurse, and other health care workers (Chen, "Well," New York Times, 6/21).