Hand-washing Isn't So Simple; Trouble Staying Awake?; More

Marcy Tolkoff, JD

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January 21, 2015

In This Article

Physician Empathy Creates Positive Patient Results

Empathy is a core component of "evidence-based medicine" that has a high correlation with patient satisfaction and outcomes. The even better news? This quality can be taught, valued, and even sustained, according to a prominent researcher in the area of empathy in patient care.

Mohammadreza Hojat, PhD, research professor of psychiatry and human behavior and director of the Jefferson Longitudinal Study at the Center for Research in Medical Education and Health Care, Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, presented "Empathy in the Realm of Evidence-Based Medicine" during a session cohosted by Cleveland Clinic at the American Osteopathic Association's OMED 2014 in Seattle.[10,11]

Unlike sympathy, which entails an emotional connection to a patient's pain—and an overabundance of which, according to Dr Hojat, can lead to burnout—empathy involves a more intellectual understanding of the kind of pain a patient is experiencing.

Dr Hojat used the seven-point Jefferson Scale of Empathy to rate reactions by medical students. His research showed that those who received higher empathy scores also received higher clinical competence evaluations by faculty, and were more likely to produce better patient outcomes. In addition, those who rated higher on the empathy scale were more likely to enter people-based specialties, as opposed to hospital-based or procedure-oriented specialties.

Can empathy be taught? Dr Hojat says that it can be learned. He cited several studies that show enhanced empathy with a targeted education program. One such study involved the "aging game," in which medical students were coached to perform the role of an elderly patient while other students had to sit and watch. The result was increased empathy for all students by watching and/or participating in the role-play for 15 minutes vs those who didn't participate.

The caveat in empathy training: When researchers followed up with participants in the "aging game" and months later, most had lost what they gained, and empathy was not retained, leading Dr Hojat to stress the need for additional reinforcement for empathy if efforts are to be sustained: "If [there is] no reinforcement, empathy gains will be lost."

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