The Power of a Physician's Kind Word

Alicia Ault


April 10, 2019

In This Article

What If a Doctor Is Just Not a Warm Person?

Trzeciak said it takes less than a minute to show a patient compassion. "We get this idea, when we feel hurried, that we don't have time for compassion," he said. "That's a really bad place to be."

Greene said she found that whether or not a physician believed that he or she had time to be compassionate depended on how they were already practicing. "The people who do it feel like it doesn't take more time because it's how they interact with their patients," Greene said. Physicians "who do it less think that it is definitely an additional thing to do."

Lauren Howe noted that making eye contact, smiling, and listening actively does not take any more time. Howe and her colleagues also found that being compassionate didn't take extra time. In their studies, they noticed that small tweaks in the physician's existing dialogue could make patients feel more appreciated.

An example is asking someone what year they were born in instead of asking for "date of birth." Small changes like this "could help a patient feel that they interacted with a provider who was warmer," said Howe.

Compassion also combats burnout, in part because it helps you forget your own worries, said Trzeciak. "If you have low compassion for patients and you don't make that human connection with patients, then you don't have the same fulfilling experiences of taking care of people," he said. That fulfilling experience is what helps build resistance and resilience to burnout, he added.

Is America in a Compassion Crisis?

Some experts believe that America is going through a compassion crisis. Several surveys, including one published in Health Affairs,[4] reported that half of patients and physicians believed that the US healthcare system does not consistently provide compassionate care.

"I think that people need to feel cared about in order to feel trust; and once they trust, they're much more likely to follow through with recommendations and feel comfortable in the personal relationship," Jessica Greene told Medscape. "They need that interpersonal relationship, both to be able to express what they need to share with the clinician, and for the clinician to be able to support the patient in getting to a healthier place," she said.

"More and more research is convincing me that these traits are things that can be built—that empathy isn't something that's set in stone; it can be learned and developed," said Howe.

All of the experts interviewed for this article agreed that these skills should be taught as part of the medical school curriculum and also offered as continuing education.

More people in leadership positions—hospital CEOs, medical school deans, and policymakers—need to recognize the importance of compassion, especially as the forces of frustration continue to mount for physicians, said Epstein.

It's not clear, however, how to get institutions to recognize compassion and empathy as key patient care goals, said Howe. "It's still just thought of as this extra bonus and that clinicians aren't really given credit for what they do [regarding showing compassion]," she said.

All physicians are taught to "first, do no harm," which is generally taken to apply to the physical, noted Epstein. "But there's also a harm caused by not being present," he said.

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