Blog: Empathy “Putting yourself in one’s shoes”

Do you have a chronic disease? Have you ever been overwhelmed by the amount of information during consultations or your own emotions about the diagnosis, disease and treatment? 

If you answer these questions with no, then it is probably difficult for you to truly understand what your patients go through during a consultation. Patients with low health literacy (LHL) often report that they do not feel understood by their healthcare provider and that their feelings and emotions are not recognized. The quotes in this blog are from a scoping review of the IMPACCT team and beautifully illustrate some experiences of patients with LHL during consultations.

“I mean I know he is busy and like he reads something fast and checks you like super, super fast and like bye…like it is a factory like…a production”

“When you can get that level of respect that you’re not just, ‘‘Oh god, I’ve got to see this person. It’s another day, another dollar,’’ but when they respect you and respect your concerns and your feelings, that’s basically when you can get into trusting and listening and doing.”

Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is an important asset to improve health outcomes for patients with LHL. Empathy is much more than just knowing a patient’s medical history, symptoms, or signs of disease and goes far beyond clinical diagnosis and treatment. It is the ability to truly understand the patients’ emotions, fears, pain and worry and the ability to respond to these.

Health care professionals that have the capacity to put one’s self in another’s shoes and feel what patients are going through are more effective. This is illustrated by more accurate diagnoses and more caring treatment. For example, when a patient displays symptoms of depression during consultation, a more empathetic health care professional might signal these and refer to a psychologist. Empathetic health care professionals also are able to build a deeper relationship with the patient. Having a trusting relationship with a healthcare provider is associated with better care and treatment outcomes. Being empathetic is known to be highly effective and powerful in a human interaction as it builds trust, reduces anxiety and is associated with medication adherence, fewer mistakes and increased patient satisfaction.

“He (oncologist) knew me by my name, my face. When I came in, it was like they treated you like you were a person and not just cattle coming through. He used to call me his most delicate patient.”

While it is in most cases impossible to stage what it truly means and feels like to get a diagnosis for a chronic disease or have low health literacy, it is still important to be empathic towards your patients and try to “put yourself in their shoes”. While empathy is starting to become increasingly popular in terms of skills and competencies of healthcare professional education, it is also possible to practice and improve your empathy skills if you have finished your education many moons ago. Many people think empathy is a trait someone is born with, but that is not true! It actually is a skill that can be trained and improved. Here are five easy-to-apply steps how to improve your clinical empathy (and if these are open doors, then you are on the right track):

1.Understand what it means to be empathetic

The key point to expressing empathy is that the attention should be focused entirely on the patient, an act of effective and compassionate listening. Healthcare professionals promote patient disclosure in the most effective way by truly listening when others are speaking, and responding with verbal or visual cues to show that they are doing just that. Recognizing another person’s emotions and feelings and responding with nonverbal attunement is the skill of an empathetic individual rather than directly asking “how are you feeling?”.

2. Acquire personal details from your patient

Patients appreciate being seen as a person and for healthcare professionals to remember personal details about them, information that goes beyond knowing how to pronounce their name correctly. Take an extra 60 seconds in the beginning of your consultation to ask your patient something beyond their medical history, symptoms, or state, but rather on family, living situation, pets, or something similar and write it down to pick up on it in the following appointment. Those personal details about your patients will show them that you care about them as persons along with cultivating feelings of empathy.

3. Make eye contact

It may sound too simple to be worth mentioning but eye contact with your patients promotes trust, respect, and a human connection. Especially in times of smartphones, digital patient records, and computers in the exam room, it is often difficult to not be glued to the screen or hide behind a device. Eye contact being part of one’s nonverbal body language is however just as important as the information that you are communicating and its avoidance may damage any sense of connection. Make sure you have read the patient’s file and information beforehand to avoid any reason to be glued to a screen and look your patient in the eye, giving him/her your full attention.

4. Put yourself in your patient’s shoes

Every patient has their own story, worries, fears, and things going on in their life that may not be visible at first sight. Many patients have possibly waited months to get an appointment, fear an upcoming diagnosis, feel like a burden to their family, or live a stressful life. Be aware of those external circumstances and unarticulated feelings that your patients experience and try to see your patients’ perspective. Even if only at the beginning of a new work week, take a moment to try to put yourself in your patients’ shoes. Do you have difficulties doing that? This video produced by the Cleveland Clinic illustrates different patient perspectives that may help you to understand diverse situations in a better way:

5. Show support

It is often important for patients to know that they’re not alone, even after they have left the doctor’s office. Point out to your patients that it is only natural to have questions after having received a diagnosis and that this is a difficult situation. Emphasize that you are happy to answer any additional questions they may have later on and that you are accessible to them. Even more important: Be accessible to your patients when they do call your office and get your staff on board in showing support to your patients.

“The doctor understands me, devotes his time and listens to me. The patient also needs this aspect: to develop trust, to have a human relationship with the physician.”

Being empathetic towards your patients does not require much time or effort, but can have significant implications for a patient’s treatment adherence, patient satisfaction, and consequently for better clinical outcomes. Just taking a few moments to recognize the person behind the diagnosis or patient file and all the emotions and worries that may be invisible to you, can be a big step to creating a human connection to your patient and being able to deliver better person-centered care.