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Empathy in Patient Care

When we receive care from another person, we are perhaps unaware of the intensity of our need for understanding and empathy on a range of levels that supersede the physical care. Within a medical environment, that need has become a pertinent focus of study and application. Medical professionals who understand the importance of empathy are able to forge relationships with their patients that impact significantly on the overall healthcare experience and recovery process.

To engage successfully, we need to get to know the person behind the patient, to see the patient’s situation from their point of view. In this way, we can become aware of a patient’s personal needs, and identify these as central to helping the patient gain trust and confidence in the healing process.

Working with the patient’s definition of the situation

  • Once you know how a patient is feeling, both in their situation and as an individual, care can be intensified by: responding more effectively; engaging more meaningfully; respecting the patient’s values, preferences and choices; promoting both physical and emotional comfort.
  • The combination of interpersonal understanding and caring action must be supported by continuity of care, a sense of teamwork with the patient, and the encouragement of feelings of empowerment in the patient.
  • Empathy promotes feelings of equality and respect, and this in turn helps a patient to relax and feel confident that the care is right for them and is taking the healing process forward. The patient should not suspect that you feel sympathy for them, but that you feel a genuine connection and concern for their wellbeing.
  • Medical professionals, under pressure, can lose sight of the person behind the condition they’re treating. This is why care with empathy is so important. It helps us to remember that the patient has needs beyond their illness or disability.
  • Delivering care where the patient is centrally focused involves caring for people beyond their physical condition and tailoring the service to suit their individual wants and needs. Patients have their own feelings and goals with regard to their condition. We need to empathise with this and adapt their assistance to the patient’s expectations and preferences, not the other way around.
  • Empathy assists a patient in regaining dignity and a positive outlook, which in turn helps them to find greater strength, focus and fortitude in overcoming their illness or disability.

Principles of empathy at the heart of person-centred care

When patients enter our care they often lose their sense of control over their lives. We  must understand this and treat patients with compassion and respect.

  • Keep in mind that patients have their own thoughts, opinions, beliefs, and values that don’t vanish when under care. Respecting these personal qualities adds a stronger dimension to the patient’s care – and therefore can contribute significantly to recovery.
  • There is always a network of care for a patient. Inevitably, you will have to co-ordinate with other professionals – so you must ensure that your patient’s needs are conveyed to others who may be involved in the care process, including family members. Building a shared understanding of the patient’s needs is key to an individual receiving consistent care, and therefore enhancing the effects of treatment and prospects of recovery.
  • Once you understand a patient’s needs from their point of view, you are better able to help them develop their own capabilities and understanding of how to look after themselves independently. This gives the patient greater control of their lives and helps them to move forward independently and to manage effectively on their own.
  • Empathy is key to helping a patient feel more wholly cared for as a human being. They will feel that they matter – and that their recovery matters to you as their doctor. Dignity is upheld, independence is built, trust and mutual respect is established. There is a sense of togetherness in the fight for better health and successful recovery.

Empathy simply means the patient does not feel alone in their situation. They are encouraged by your genuine understanding of their needs and as a result, their engagement in the process of healing will be enhanced. There is a sense of teamwork that can significantly increase the patient’s morale and positivity, and your ability to deliver more compassionate care that may, in many instances, be truly life-changing for the patient.

For doctors, empathic patient – doctor relationships have been unequivocally proven to improve diagnostic accuracy , increase job satisfaction and reduce physician burnout.

Dr Izolda Heydenrych

Dr Heydenrych has been involved in aesthetic medicine and dermatology teaching for over two decades. As the co-founder and director of the Cape Town Cosmetic Dermatology Centre, and currently in full-time private practice, she is able to fully realise her ideals in her own capacity. Due to her passion for teaching and sharing, she holds an Honorary Consultant post at Stellenbosch University (Division Dermatology) where she is currently involved in teaching both aesthetic medicine and dissection anatomy.