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Tips for Being Empathetic When Providing Care

Empathy is important for quality healthcareSuppose you pulled a muscle in your back while doing housework, and you’ve been in severe pain for the past three days. You need a hand to help sit or stand, and sleeping is almost impossible because you can’t find a position that doesn’t cause your back to ache. You’re in tears when you finally call the doctor’s office to make an appointment.

A nurse calls your name and checks your weight and height. He confirms your health history on the computer and takes your vitals. A nurse practitioner enters the room, asks about your activity level, hands you a prescription for pain medication, and walks out.

Although the nursing team did everything right, you would probably leave the doctor’s office feeling unsure: No one acknowledged your distress due to the pain. No one seemed to understand. No one showed you empathy.

Why clinical empathy is important in healthcare

Empathy is the main ingredient of humane, compassionate care. The National Institute of Health defines empathy as “the act of correctly acknowledging the emotional state of another without experiencing that state oneself.” We feel empathy when we try to understand the trials and tribulations of our children, the sad moments of our friends, the stress of our spouse after a bad day at work, and the ails of our patients.

Empathy is necessary for a healthcare provider to connect with patients and, at times, can be more effective in patient care than technical ability. In fact, one of the strongest arguments for empathy in the healthcare setting is the strong correlation between having a good patient-provider relationship and a positive treatment outcome. According to the study’s author, “the beneficial effects of a good patient-clinician relationship on healthcare outcomes are of similar magnitude to many well-established medical treatments.”

If you’re struggling with this necessary soft skill, know that it’s not solely embedded in our DNA; it’s a learned ability, and you can inject more into your care by practicing and learning a few methods.

Listen to your patients

Active listening means putting yourself in the other person’s position as they describe it. Think about what they must be feeling. Think about how you would feel if you were in their position. When it’s your turn to talk, repeat back what you think the other person meant or how they might feel.

While other people are talking, most of us are thinking about what we’re going to say. Test yourself: Next time you have a conversation with a friend, notice your thoughts. Are you thinking about how your friend must feel, or are you preparing for your own response?

You may be surprised how much people are willing to share when they think someone is really listening to them.

Related resource: Be Careful: These Are the Causes of Compassion Fatigue

Challenge your own prejudice and stereotypes

There will always be people in our lives who we’re not comfortable around. Whether it’s a coworker who you think doesn’t like you, or a friend’s friend who always makes you feel awkward and underdressed, discomfort is inevitable. But it often stems from our own prejudice and assumptions.

Put yourself in the other person’s position. Since no one’s life is perfect, what might their struggles be? What do they want? Find out this information by trying to get to know this person. Finding common ground is a great place to start.

Make eye contact

Making eye contact can be very difficult. We may avoid eye contact in order to avoid confrontation, or it may be as simple as multitasking. (You can’t make eye contact while you’re taking notes or checking the computer!)

Take a dive, and look your patients in the eye. Pause between questions if you’re charting or taking notes, and take time to make eye contact. According to a report quoted in The New York Times, “children and adults who avoid or are denied eye contact are more likely to suffer from depression and feelings of isolation as well as exhibit antisocial traits such as callousness.”

In fact, according to the NYT, “patients of doctors who made more eye contact had better health, adhered more to medical advice, and were more likely to seek treatment for future problems.”

Related resource: 5 Ways Nurses Can Build Rapport With Patients

Nonverbal cues

Sometimes when someone says they are fine, their body language tells a very different story. The person may be picking at their nails, avoiding eye contact, or slouching toward the door — all signs of someone who is not at all fine. Nonverbal cues are nearly impossible to fake, often paint a picture of what’s really going, and are more accurate than words. When used with awareness, nonverbal communication is a powerful way to build rapport and strengthen relationships.

Ameritech provides a holistic approach to treating patients. We teach students to consider the mind, spirit, emotion, environment, and body when treating patients. Empathy is a great way to care for the whole person.

To learn more about our nursing degrees, please visit our website.