Studies Show Physician Empathy Increases Patient Satisfaction and Outcomes

PRNewswire— Is empathy a core component of “evidence-based medicine?”  One prominent researcher and author in the area of empathy in patient care argues that the answer is unequivocally “yes” and says that it can and should be evaluated, taught and sustained, as studies show a high correlation between patient satisfaction and outcomes with empathy scores.  

Mohammadreza Hojat, Ph.D., 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 on “Empathy in the Realm of Evidence-Based Medicine,” during a presentation co-hosted by the Cleveland Clinic at the  American Osteopathic Association’s OMED 2014, the Osteopathic Medical Conference & Exposition in Seattle.

Can empathy be taught?

Dr. Hojat says the good news is that empathy can be learned.  He cited several studies where the Jefferson Scale was used, that shows enhanced empathy with a targeted education program.  “Additional reinforcement could sustain or improve empathy among residents,” he said.

Some examples include:   

–The Rocking Chair Project:  A free rocking chair was given to indigent expectant mothers by residents in family medicine; the resident had to take the chair to the mother in her home and talk about newborn care too.  Going into the home, talking to the mom and assembling the chair prevented a decline of empathy by residents.  For those residents who didn’t participate, their empathy declined. 

–Shadowing:  Those residents who shadowed patients in the emergency room helped to maintain their empathy of residents vs. those whose empathy declined.

–Aging Game:  Students at Midwestern University Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine and Chicago College of Pharmacy were coached to perform the role of an elderly patient.  Other medical students had to sit and watch.  This increased empathy for all students by watching and/or participating in the role play for 15 minutes vs. those who didn’t participate.

–Narrative Skills Training:  The Cleveland Clinic did a study on narrative skills training with residents that showed that while there was no significant improvement in empathy, residents did not lose empathy vs. those who weren’t exposed to training.

–Movie Clips Experiment:   When residents were shown video clips of patient-physician encounters selected from three movies and analyzed positive and negative aspects of each interaction, their empathy score increased.  

The caveat in empathy training:  when researchers followed up with the subjects from the Aging Game and Movie Clip studies months later; most had lost what they gained, and empathy was not sustained. 

“There needs to be additional reinforcement for empathy to be sustained; if no reinforcement, empathy gains will be lost,” Dr. Hojat said.