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July 19, 2017

How can doctors appear more competent to their patients? Try a little empathy

Daily Briefing

    Physicians who acted empathetically toward patients were perceived as both warmer and more competent than physicians who were less empathetic—findings that could have significant implications for patient outcomes and patient satisfaction, according to a new study in PLOS ONE.

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    Study details

    For the study, researchers at Yale University asked more than 1,300 people to review written patient-provider dialogue that had been paired with images of either empathetic or unempathetic images of providers meeting with patients. According to the researchers, the empathetic images showed physicians displaying warm nonverbal behaviors, such as eye contact, touch, and concerned facial expressions, while the unempathetic images showed physicians displaying behaviors such as closed postures, no touch, and no eye contact.

    The researchers tested two sets of the images, one of which featured physicians wearing white coats and the other set that did not. The study participants were able to see only the empathetic or unempathetic images—but not both—and were then asked to judge the physicians' warmth and competence, both with and without the white coat.

    The researchers found that the doctors in images where they were displaying empathetic behavior were perceived who were perceived as both more competent and warmer overall, regardless of whether they were wearing a traditional white coat.


    According to the researchers, the findings debunk concerns about a potential trade-off between warmth and competence—which in turn suggests that our view of physicians in society has changed over time.

    "No longer are [physicians] judged solely on their technical competence—that is, their ability to perform medical procedures," Gordon Kraft-Todd, study co-author and PhD student in the Human Cooperation Laboratory at Yale, writes in Scientific American. "Rather they may increasingly be judged on their interpersonal competence—that is, their ability to navigate the difficult social interactions inherent in managing patients' illness and wellness."

    It's a particularly significant finding, Kraft-Todd continues, because prior research has shown that physician empathy is correlated with improved patient adherence and outcomes, as well as increased patient satisfaction. And if empathy is associated with improved patient outcomes and satisfaction, "there is a compelling case to include" soft-skills training in medical school, Kraft-Todd writes.

    Writing in the study, the researchers concluded, "Given the significant consequences of clinician empathy, it is important for clinicians to learn how nonverbal behavior contributes to empathetic communication, and use it as another tool to improve their patients' emotional and physical health" (Rappleye, Becker's Hospital Review, 7/14; Kraft-Todd, Scientific American, 7/13).

    5 myths physicians believe about patient experience

    5 myths physicians believe about patient experience

    Excellent patient experience is a critical piece of modern medicine, reflected clearly in outcomes. And more than amenities, clean rooms, or quiet during night, the factors that most inflect patient experience all relate to communication and coordination among the care team—factors that physicians are in a unique position to influence.

    Clinician-patient communication, leadership of the care team, and support and empathy for the patient across the unit are the most important factors for success, and they're all driven by the physician as the "Influencer in Chief."

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