August 29, 2010
The use of Empathy as a Communication Technique
One of the most important skills of providers in the healthcare field is effective communication. Understanding of the patients concerns, needs, and questions are essential for the provider in order to administer quality healthcare services. Listening to patients tell their health story helps the provider get an inside view of how the patient understands their problem and patients perceive the provider is truly concerned about their wellbeing. Effective communication will also lead the way to improved patients compliance to treatment, satisfaction of services and understanding of their problem. Research by (Norfolk, Birdie & Walsh, 2007) argues that, “The quality of doctor-patient communication remains central to the effectiveness of the medical consultation”. According to Gibson (1994) “patients are highly sensitive to the quality of their doctor's communication and, in fact, consider doctors who communicate effectively to be more competent than those who do not”. Incorporating the use of empathy as a communication technique to enhance the client-clinician relationship and build rapport is a valuable tool for healthcare providers to utilize. “The concept of empathy is relevant to the clinical situation because patients are people in need of help “(Spiro, Curnen, Peschel, St. James 1993 p.82). Empathy. What does the word mean? Ciaramicoli and Ketcham (2000) define empathy as “the capacity to understand and respond to the unique experiences of another”. Webster’s dictionary offers this definition, “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner. The capacity of the provider to understand and respond to the
patients self expression of their issue rests on the providers desire to empty themselves and become sensitive to the feelings and thoughts and then verbally respond this comprehension back to the patient. In the work of Spiro et al.,(1993 p. 81) empathy is further described as being pertinent to the clinical profession, in that the aim of healthcare providers is to assist those who are hurting and coping with a health problem and empathy communicates the message “I care and want to understand”. Coulehan et al. (2001) offer a clinical definition of empathy stating, “Empathy can be visualized as a positive feedback loop, or a neurologic track with afferent and efferent components”. The patient’s use of verbal and non verbal communications leads the physician to a more exact physical location of what is ailing the patient. On the other side, the efferent component is made up of the provider’s responses that lead to gaining more information from the client. To this end, empathy helps the clinician know the patient beyond the clinical data. It fosters an understanding of how the problem directly affects the patient’s life and their hopes of continuity of that life. In this sense, empathy as a communication tool used in the healthcare setting is beneficial to cultivating the patient provider relationship. Practioners who practice using empathic communication with their patients are increasing their opportunity to build trust into the patient-provider relationship. Trust is important in that the patient is expecting the goodwill of the healthcare provider to lead them down a path of health recovery and the provider, being seen as an expert, also has a level of expected trust from the patient. Servellen (2009 p. 12) states, “Mutual trust is essential to quality care outcomes, particularly to adherence and adaptation of changes required when one is ill or at risk for developing disease or illness. When providers acknowledge the...