How (and why) to Increase Compassion in your Healthcare Practice

The smallest expressions of empathy make huge lasting impressions…

As we face top killers like cancer and heart disease, where 80% of outcomes depend on factors outside of the clinical component, an expanded approach to healthcare delivery that incorporates culture, spiritual beliefs and health literacy is critical to improving outcomes.”

Commentary: For more successful health policy outcomes, think like a human, Modern Healthcare

Human compassion influences patient health and retention. It is well known that a healthy emotional support system and a healthy lifestyle leads to a healthy life. Increasingly, healthcare leaders find that this idea extends to patient relationships with providers. Healthy provider-patient relationships lead to better patient outcomes and higher patient retention rates. This win-win scenario is why today’s leading healthcare facilities prioritize empathy and compassionate communication to improve the quality of provider-patient relationships.   

What is Empathy?

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Expressing empathy to patients requires compassionate communication. Compassionate communication is the ability to exchange thoughts and ideas with someone, while being sensitive to their suffering and anxiety. It involves active listening and understanding verbal and nonverbal communication cues. While compassionate communication has always held a place in the world of medicine, increasing emphasis on patient-centered care has brought this need to the forefront. 

How Empathy Affects Patient Outcomes and Retention 

“More than 70 percent of malpractice lawsuits are due to communication errors. Effective and compassionate communication with patients is essential for healthcare professionals to form relationships with patients and their families.” 

How Compassionate Communication Improves Patient Care, Anthony Orsini, DO, Orlando Health

Compassionate communication not only plays a role in building relationships with patients and preventing malpractice suites; it can affect your facility’s reputation. Bad news travels fast. For example, if a patient has a poor experience, they are more likely to share that with an acquaintance or in a review than they are to share a positive experience. 

In addition, it is important to remember that patients are often in a state of distress when visiting a healthcare facility. As Dr. Orsini puts it, “whether a patient is sitting in a doctor’s office, waiting in an exam room or waking up after surgery, they often feel a mix of emotions, including uncertainty, fear and vulnerability. They want answers. They want the truth. But even as doctors share information with them, they want more than just the facts – they want it conveyed in a caring manner.” 

Patients are human, first and foremost, and their emotions impact their experience arguably more than facts of the experience itself. 

“When a patient arrives to see their healthcare provider, the patient’s medical condition — whether it is a severe illness or injury, a chronic condition, or simply a routine check-up – will often manifest emotions such as anxiety, fear, and apprehension. Patients want to know they are receiving the very best care, and that is conveyed when their care team is empathetic and compassionate.” 

The Importance of Empathy in Healthcare: Advancing Humanism, Medical GPS

Facilities who take time to acknowledge their patient’s fears and apprehension are more likely to set patients’ minds at ease and retain those patients.

How to Demonstrate Compassion through Communication

Patients who feel cared for emotionally as well as physically are more likely to trust, respect, and appreciate their provider. Dr. Orsini points out, “While no one is doubting that doctors and other healthcare professionals are compassionate, they may not demonstrate it in ways that patients most need.”

For example, it is common for doctors to interrupt patients. A study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that doctors spend an average of 11 seconds listening to a patient before interrupting them. However, Dr. Orsini explains that providers often do not realize they are doing so.

“Picture, for example, a doctor talking with a new patient in an examination room. As the patient describes the symptoms, the doctor interrupts to ask questions to get more specific information. The doctor may be striving for efficiency, yet the patient feels like they aren’t being heard.” 

How Compassionate Communication Improves Patient Care, Anthony Orsini, DO, Orlando Health

Patients want to share their experience and opinions and receive authentic compassion and direction in return. When patients perceive that their provider is merely listening to respond rather than to understand, trust degrades. Taking extra time to ask patients open-ended questions and actively listen to their answers and observe both verbal and non-verbal cues goes a long way to build trust with patients.

The reality is, patients need both emotional and physical care.  The key to delivering both is compassionate communication. That means taking a more humanistic approach to every interaction. Facilities that want to improve their compassionate communication should prioritize training and education so that all providers and staff know communication best practices.

Take Away: 

Compassion and empathy for patients not only impacts how a patient feels and cares for themselves, but also how they feel about their providers. Patients want to know that they are more than a number or a check from the insurance company. Additionally, patients are far more likely to stay with a provider long-term if they feel valued as a human being, listened to, and respected for their personal experience. Every member of a practice’s staff must demonstrate compassion and care toward patients, not only because it is a nice thing to do but because it is the right thing to do for the patient and the practice.