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Communicate with empathy for a better patient experience

October 31st, 2012

by Carla Rotering

Empathy and compassion dwell at the core of the collective physician intention. We hold a noble commitment, and have taken a sober oath, to offer healing and caring to all who come to us with suffering.

In the swirling eddies of our busyness, we may take shortcuts that do not demonstrate how deeply we care about our work and our patients.

For example, most doctors interrupt and redirect patients' narratives after listening for only 20 seconds. Four out of five physicians ignore clues and expressions of affect. When we do respond, we quickly shift back to biomedical issues. I'm struck by these statistics.

[More:]

My granddaughter Zoey was nine when she was injured in a terrible accident. After hours of poking and testing, the emergency room physician began to stitch lacerations in her head when Zoey whimpered, "Ouch!"

Her doctor responded, "That couldn't hurt. I numbed it. And you have to lie still." Zoey, motionless, wept. "It HURTS!" Again the doctor denied this possibility, "There's no way it could! Now please lie still!"

Simply witnessing this exchange was unbearable. I finally asked the physician to step out of the room for a moment and said, "I am asking you to listen to her and accept her feelings. Zoey knows what she is going through, and she is the expert on her experience." Sadly, this competent physician lacked mindful tools to express her empathy and Zoey suffered as a result.

Substantial research shows empathy enhances patient and family satisfaction, and it also positively contributes to optimal clinical outcomes.

At Banner Health in Arizona, we are working diligently to increase empathic communication on behalf of a patient experience that is both humane and healing. We are implementing "The Language of Caring for Physicians"--a program that helps strengthen the important spoken and unspoken conversations that reside between physician, patient and family.

In my new book "The Language of Caring Guide for Physicians: Communication Essentials for Patient Centered Care" I describe a tool to help physicians communicate with empathy called "Heart-Head-Heart Communication."

It calls for combining two kinds of messages in our communication with patients:

  1. Heart messages, which are empathic, personal and subjective
  2. Head messages, which are more rational and information oriented--addressing the task at hand

The pressures of time and performance render our work more task-oriented, and as a result our communication is less heartfelt and more often intellectual. Patients and families may experience our competence, but they don't feel our caring.

As we focus on more heart-to-heart communication and the deliberate expressions of empathy, we can see the transformative, healing power of authentic empathic communication for patients. We also are recognizing that mindful empathic communication leads to a stronger connection with our patients, making our work as physicians more fulfilling and more aligned with our noble purpose.

The image of my frail, suffering granddaughter stirs my heart still, and inspires my belief that expanding the wisdom of deeply caring physicians by cultivating empathic, compassionate communication is potent medicine.

I welcome your comments and invite your stories.

Carla Rotering, M.D., is a pulmonologist at Banner Thunderbird Medical Center in Phoenix and the director of Physician Services for the Leebov Golde Group. She can be reached at crotering@quality-patient-experience.com.

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