How empathy can save you time

How empathy can save you time

Forgoing the pleasantries and diving right into a patient’s clinical concerns may seem like the most efficient and time-conscious way of approaching patient interactions, but sidestepping a little interpersonal communication may be costing you more time than it’s saving. Exercising a little empathy can save you time now and down the road.

What is empathy?

At its core, empathy is the ability to imagine what another person may be feeling or experiencing. Unlike sympathy, which can lead to physician burnout and carries the risk of clouding clinical judgement, empathy does not disrupt objectivity. Rather, it serves to facilitate patient-physician trust and can help you develop a plan of care that is tailored to an individual patient’s emotional, cognitive, and biological needs.

Patients expect that you will be able to take care of their clinical needs, but they also want to know that you see them as human beings.

Empathy can improve efficiency

Cleveland Clinic guides its providers toward more empathetic interactions by encouraging them to look for and respond to certain emotional cues during the patient visit. A provider who is in tune with a patient’s emotional cues is more likely to respond appropriately to that patient’s needs. On the other hand, if a provider ignores those cues, the patient may stop talking, which may result in the patient waiting until the provider is leaving the room to bring up his or her primary concern or not bringing it up at all. The former adds unnecessary time to the initial office visit; the latter results in extended diagnosis times.

Current research bears this out. A study of 116 routine office visits to community-based practices in Colorado and Oregon found that visits in which the physician picked up on emotional clues and expressed empathy were an average of three minutes shorter than visits in which the physician missed opportunities to express empathy.

Simple ways to improve your empathy

In addition to watching for emotional cues, there are a number of other practical ways to improve your use of empathy when communicating with your patients.

  • Say hello. Greet patients with a warm smile and outstretched hand. If your arms are crossed, you may be perceived as closed off or emotionally detached.
  • Make eye contact. If your eyes are focused only on your computer screen, you may miss out on important emotional cues.
  • Reflect what you are hearing back to the patient. In addition to opening the door for more details or clarification, asking patients if you have heard them correctly and then reflecting back what you have been told shows that you are actively listening to their concerns.

More than just a time saver

Empathy does more than just save you time. Higher levels of perceived physician empathy have been linked to better adherence, increased patient satisfaction rates, cost savings, and improved outcomes for patients with conditions such as chronic stroke, diabetes, and even the common cold. There is a growing body evidence that shows incorporating empathy into your patient communication strategy is good for your patients, good for you, and good for your bottom line.

YOUR TURN: What do you see as the barriers to incorporating empathy into patient-provider interactions?

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