“I feel your pain” – Importance and Practicality of Empathy, Part 1

A patient comes in and describes their aches, their pains, discomforts, and fears; do you feel their pain? You understand what they’re dealing with, shouldn’t you? You’re a physical therapist. I guess some people have it and some people don’t…right? Well not necessarily. Empathy is a vital part of patient care that should permeate throughout healthcare professions but tends to get lost in the hustle and bustle of productivity. Empathy has traditionally been seen as something people innately possess, but anyone can learn and truly become empathetic. This learned behavior is not only important for becoming a kind individual for your own wellbeing, but for becoming that kind person your patients desperately require.

Lets start by discussing what empathy actually is and it’s many forms as defined by emotional psychologist, Paul Ekman. Empathy, as a whole, is a multidimensional behavior with the goal to understand what another individual may be going through emotionally and physically. Paul Ekman breaks down empathy into three components: Cognitive, emotional, and compassionate empathy. Cognitive empathy is defined as the ability to know how someone feels and how he or she is thinking. It is the ability to see something from that person’s perspective. The second form is emotional empathy, which is the ability to actually feel that person’s emotion. The last form of empathy that we will discuss is called compassionate empathy. This form seems to be the most practical for providers because it is our call to action. Compassionate empathy is not only the ability to feel and understand our patients but is our ability to actually help them.

Empathy is multifactorial and it relates to patient care in a huge way. Clinical empathy, as defined by Mercer et al. (2002) is the ability to understand the patient’s situation, perspective, and feelings (and their attached meanings); to communicate that understanding and check its accuracy; and to act on that understanding with the patient in a helpful (therapeutic) way. This appears to take into account all three forms of empathy as defined by Paul Ekman. Logically, by understanding what empathy is, one can understand the importance it plays. Neumann et al. (2011) reports that quality of care is improved when a practitioner is empathetic because it allows the patient to report more on their symptoms and concerns, it increases practitioner diagnostic accuracy, the patient receives more disease specific information, it increases patient participation/compliance, allows for greater enablement, and reduces emotional distress. You could imagine now that if there is a lack of empathy that there may also be a lack of improved outcomes.

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