The Emerging Issue of Digital Empathy

Christopher Terry, PharmD; Jeff Cain, EdD, MS

Disclosures

Am J Pharm Educ. 2016;80(4):58 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction

Abstract

Empathy can have strong positive effects on patient outcomes, increase patient satisfaction, and reduce malpractice litigation. With modern advances in technology, however, the appropriate expression of empathy in today's age is being threatened, largely as a result of psychological processes that form online disinhibition. The digitization of health care and the corresponding decrease in the expression of empathy may be cause for concern. Because empathy is strongly correlated to positive health outcomes and is an important part of health professions in general, the construct of digital empathy should be considered for integration into health professions curricula.

Introduction

The importance of empathy in patient care and in the patient-provider relationship is well documented in the medical literature. As Neuwirth stated, empathy increases both patient satisfaction and compliance and enhances a practitioner's ability to treat patients.[1] In addition, empathy has strong positive effects on patients' health outcomes[2] and reduces the risk of malpractice litigation.[3,4]

As with many other aspects of contemporary culture, rapid adoption of social and mobile technologies has altered society's communication patterns[5] and disrupted the expression of empathy, specifically in digital conversations. Mobile and social media use has transformed when and how individuals interact with others. The ability to instantly share thoughts, feelings, and behaviors with the rest of society via digital channels can occur in mere seconds, often without the empathetic social filter that accompanies traditional communications. Moreover, digital communications are devoid of many of the emotional signals and cues experienced in face-to-face settings, often leading to more impersonal interactions.[6] These changes in modern technology present challenges to the evolving socio-communicative aspects of health care and require an understanding of the emerging construct of "digital empathy." We offer a definition of digital empathy as the "traditional empathic characteristics such as concern and caring for others expressed through computer-mediated communications."

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