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Improve Provider Empathy in 7 Simple Steps

Teresa Iafolla

Written by Teresa Iafolla

Lackluster bedside manner is a common patient complaint about providers. But what does good bedside manner really boil down to? Empathy. A great provider has rockstar clinical skills and empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Provider empathy is so important in fact, that a wealth of studies have tied provider empathy to increased patient satisfaction and outcomes. In one example, patients of providers with high empathy scores had greater control over their diabetes. This goes to show that kind words and a little emotional support from a provider can have a measurable impact on patient outcomes.

As a busy provider, you probably don’t have time to attend an empathy training that gives you the tools you need to improve your patient relationships. Don’t worry – if you follow all 7 steps below, you’ll be on your way to mastering an empathetic approach to patient care.

  1. Personal details are key. While patients don’t expect you to remember the name of their pet rabbit, you need to know more than how to say their names correctly. Take the time to jot down a few personal details during each visit. Document life updates or significant events. Knowing these personal details about your patients will not only convince them you care, but will help cultivate feelings of empathy. The more you know about someone, the more you’ll be able to understand where they’re coming from.
  2. Spend an extra minute. Ok, this step might be a tough one for providers operating against the clock. But try adding one minute to each visit. Spend that extra 60 seconds gathering personal details and asking how patients are doing generally, not just medically. Patients will notice you taking the time and give you points for an empathetic approach.
  3. Make eye contact. This basic technique to building a positive provider-patient relationship is getting harder and harder to follow. If you’re using a computer or mobile device in the exam room, be sure you’re not glued to the screen. Your nonverbal body language speaks just as loudly as your words, and refusing to make eye contact with patients will damage any sense of connection. If you’re not sure how you’re doing, take 5 minutes to role play an appointment with a staff member. Ask them for feedback.
  4. Show your support. If a patient is obviously upset or worried about something, acknowledge that they’re going through a difficult situation. When delivering a new diagnosis, emphasize that it’s only natural for them to have questions and you’d be happy to answer anything. If you’re struggling to find the right words, check out these common responses.
  5. Put yourself in your patients’ shoes. Most likely your patients have been waiting awhile to see you. They probably had to take time off from a busy work schedule to come in, maybe even find a babysitter to watch the kids. They might be worried about an uncertain medical condition, anxious about the potential bills, in pain from a chronic condition. All of these factors will make it harder for them to comprehend a new diagnosis, ask the right questions, or remember all the details of their treatment plan. If you’re still struggling to empathize with your patients, try spending 5 minutes at the beginning of each week imagining your patients’ perspective. Need a visual aid or source for inspiration? Watch this illustrative, short video by the Cleveland Clinic.
  6. Get patient feedback on how you’re doing. The best way to gauge your patients’ perceptions of empathy? Ask them! Design a patient satisfaction survey, and include questions that target a positive doctor-patient relationship and physician empathy.
  7. Share this article with your staff. Empathy training is important for your medical practice staff too! In many offices, patients likely spend more time interacting with a combination of receptionists, medical assistants, and nurses than their providers. That means a negative interaction with your staff can influence patient satisfaction just as much. Share this article with your staff and encourage them to watch the Cleveland Clinic video for inspiration.

There you have it – 7 simple strategies that will help you reframe patient interactions and leave patients with the sense that you truly care. Remember, it’s only natural that limited time and job stress will affect your adherence to these empathy techniques. Bookmark this article and return to it once a month (or however often you need) for a quick test. Stick to these steps and you’ll have happier, healthier patients in no time.


Published: January 20, 2015