Importance of empathy
Empathic care improves patient experience and satisfaction, health outcomes and practitioner wellbeing. Amongst other things, it can reduce pain and therefore medication use, and reduce the number – and length – of hospital admissions. Moreover, practising with empathy can help to improve staff resilience.
We know that practitioners who provide empathic care not only increase patients’ quality of life and even life expectancy, but also improve their own job satisfaction and reduce the risk of burnout. Having the tools to connect with other people and build personal resilience can improve the wellbeing of practitioners across the NHS, strengthening the resilience and motivation of a workforce that has never been more recognised for its critical role in society.
Yet, there is some evidence that empathy declines in medical students during undergraduate education, and anecdotal experiences of many patients clearly show that empathy is not embedded across the health service. Simultaneously, burnout is becoming endemic among healthcare practitioners, with the devastating effects of the pandemic on healthcare workers likely to remain long after COVID-19 is brought under control. The decline in empathy among healthcare students and practitioners isn’t just bad for patients – it’s bad for practitioners.
Fostering empathy and teaching compassionate leadership in our healthcare workforce will promote better clinical care for patients, a better working environment for our staff, and wellbeing for all. A coordinated, evidence-based and revolutionary programme of training at all levels, to nurture clinical empathy in a fractured and vulnerable workforce, has the potential to improve recruitment and retention, and ultimately provide patients with the continuity of care and truly empathic approach they deserve. Finally, the added value of human practitioners in the age of the Internet is precisely their ability to offer empathy; now is the right time to disrupt medical care in a revolutionary way.
“I’m from a single-parent family and spent my childhood as a carer for my mother, who was diagnosed with an emotionally unstable personality disorder. There were often doctors and nurses involved in my mum’s care, and I saw some great examples of how fantastic the health service can be when they took time to empathise and build rapport with my mum. But, more often than not, the care we received was not good and totally lacked empathy. I saw the devastating impact this had on my mum’s ability to trust her team, how distressed she got when her problems were trivialised and how insignificant she was made to feel by the doctors who were supposedly caring for her.
Interactions with doctors became traumatic and if she wasn’t made to feel like a person rather than a problem early on, she would just stop engaging, she wouldn’t adhere to her treatments and she got more unwell. I’ve seen first-hand that empathy is important in medicine, but it wasn’t until I was a Foundation Year medical student that I really started to appreciate how much of an integral part of our training it needs to be. It is part of my duty of care as a doctor, my professional development, and a core skill that I hope will always form the basis of my future consultations, so that I can provide the best possible care for my patients.”