A recent Emergency Medical Journal article examined the relationship between empathy and litigation. The authors enrolled two groups of patients into a randomized, double-blind controlled trial. The subjects watched simulated discharge discussions between physicians and standardized patients; half of the videos differed only by the inclusion of two brief empathy statements. These verbalizations included: 1) a reflection on the patients' concerns about their symptoms, and 2) a reflection on their health awareness.
After watching the video, subjects were asked to score, (on a five-point Likert scale), their thoughts regarding suing the physician in the event of a missed outcome leading to lost work, (primary outcome), and four measures of satisfaction with the physician encounter (secondary outcomes). The empathy group had significantly fewer thoughts around litigation. In addition, the measures of satisfaction with the encounter were significantly better in this group.
In this context, empathy is defined as “the capacity to understand or feel what the patient is experiencing from within the patient’s frame of reference.” Empathy also involves being able to communicate that understanding back to the patient and the ability to be respectful of the patient’s worries or concerns. How you respond to the patient throughout the course of an interaction will determine not only how much information you will obtain, but will also form the core of your ongoing working relationship with the patient. You will often have an opportunity to treat the patient with empathy; a key component of building rapport. Without empathy, the patient will struggle with developing any trust that you understand and sympathize with his or her situation.
Find out more about this study and strategies to build your empathy skills to promote patient safety and help improve patient outcomes.