How much does empathy matter in healthcare? A lot, it turns out.
A study published in 2019 found that patients’ perception of empathy among their care providers was strongly correlated with patient satisfaction, which influences adherence to treatment and contributes to a better doctor-patient relationship.
Effect of empathy on health outcomes
A randomized clinical trial published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that patients who perceived their healthcare providers as “most empathetic” lost 7 pounds more than the patients who rated their providers as “least empathetic.”
The effects are present in other areas of medicine as well. A 2013 review of 964 studies said empathy in the patient-physician communication is of unquestionable importance.
“There is a good correlation between physician empathy and patient satisfaction and a direct positive relationship with strengthening patient enablement” the study’s authors noted. “Empathy lowers patients’ anxiety and distress and delivers significantly better clinical outcomes.”
Empathy alone isn’t enough
It’s not just empathy but the perception of empathy that matters. For example, a doctor may feel empathy toward her patient, but unless she demonstrates it in a way that her patient understands and receives, she’s missing the mark.
It helps to understand what patients actually want from their providers. A patient survey published in 2019 found that patients want providers who acknowledge their emotions, listen well, have a positive disposition, and are trustworthy.
How to communicate with empathy
At WELL, we help our customers communicate empathetically with their patients. Here’s how:
- Text your patients: Demonstrating empathy starts by communicating with patients in a way that works for them, which is often texting. Four out of five patients prefer to text their doctor than to receive a phone call or email.
- Use first names: When your patients get messages from you, do you address them by name? Or does your text look like something out of a script, “Dr Smith: Your appointment is on June 5 at 5PM.” Instead, it could look like this: “Thanks for confirming your appt, John! Dr. Smith is looking forward to seeing you soon. Please text back if you have any questions.”
- Talk to your patients, not about them: Instead of saying, “Talitha has an appointment at 9AM with Dr. Roth,” say, “Talitha, you have an appointment at 9AM with Dr. Roth.” It’s a subtle difference, but it sets the tone for the interaction with your patient.
- Be brief: You are busy. So are your patients. Show them you “get it” by being brief. Text messages that work best for WELL clients are brief and include only the necessary details. If patients want more info, they can ask. We have friendly auto-responses to common questions, such as “Where are you located?” Of course, your staff can also chime in when they need to.
- Show emotion: You’re not a robot. Express emotions in your communication. “Hello Betsy, Dr. Smith is looking forward to seeing you tomorrow…” and “Robert, we’re sorry that you missed your appt with Dr. Smith…” Exclamation points further convey warmth and friendliness!
Empathetic patient outreach delivers better results
We know you feel empathy toward your patients. It may be a large reason why you’re in medicine. Our client success representatives help you demonstrate it in your communication.
One WELL customer recently saw its appointment confirmations triple after meeting with one of our client success representatives who helped them implement these and other strategies for communicating effectively and with empathy.♥
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Pamela Ellgen is WELL’s Health Editor. She began her career in community journalism and is the author of more than a dozen published books. She is a graduate of Washington State University.