Can Doctors Learn Empathy?


I recently read an article in the New York Times by Dr. Pauline Chen entitled, “Can Doctor’s Learn Empathy?” As Dr. Chen points out, “greater physician empathy has been associated with fewer medical errors, better patient outcomes and more satisfied patients. It also results in fewer malpractice claims and happier doctors.” Yet we also know that medical school training tends to contribute to a lessening of empathy over time and some have suggested that perhaps the current rigorous process to get through one’s premedical education and ultimately into medical school, may pre-select individuals with less tendency to be naturally empathetic.

For me, the awesomeness of a career as a doctor is the opportunity to connect with someone in need and perhaps make a difference in his or her life. Too often, I’ve seen medical students or even attending physicians who focus too much on the science or trying to get the right answer, rather than the need to be empathetic.

Fortunately, it turns out that with a little effort you can teach empathy. A recent study by Dr. Helen Riess, showed that, “doctors who went through an empathy course interrupted their patients less, maintained better eye contact and were better able to maintain their equanimity if patients became angry, frustrated or upset.” This is great news for patients. While we can use technology to stay on top of the latest news, at the end of the day, patients want more than a prescription or a straightforward diagnosis; they want a doctor who listens, who takes the time to understand the patient and his or her concerns. In short, not just a physican, but an empathetic human being.

How do you find an empathetic doctor who’s right for you?

  1. First of all realize that you are a health-care consumer. Like other products that you buy, you have a right to a product (experience) that you’re happy with.
  2. Prepare for your visit with your doctor by writing down your questions and letting the doctor know that you have some questions you would like to discuss with him or her.
  3. Realize that given the hectic office schedule and increasing demands on doctors’ time, you may not get to address all of your concerns right then and there. If your situation is complex or your list of questions long, he or she might not be able to answer all of them in a single visit. In that case they should offer to bring you back to address the rest of your concerns or find an alternative way to address them, such as email.
  4. If you’re unhappy with the experience you had with your doctor, discuss that with him or her. If they’re not responsive to your concerns, time to find a new one.