Have Doctors Really Become Less Empathetic?

Most people want an empathetic doctor, someone who can prescribe medications but also someone who listens and understands. Yet patients rightfully complain that there just seems to be less empathy from doctors in clinics and hospitals. Researchers have found that medical students’ empathy scores drop through the course of medical education, and medical journals lament that physician empathy is on the decline. Most research looking to understand and solve the ‘empathy gap’ focuses on training individual physicians, but it could be a lost cause if the work environment remains unchanged.

The key resides in the nature of clinical empathy, which requires that the practitioner be truly present. That medical professional must be curious enough to cognitively and emotionally relate to a patient’s situation, perspective and feelings, and then communicate this understanding back to the patient.

At times, empathy’s impact seems more magical than biological. When empathy scores are higher, patients recover faster from the common cold, diabetics have better blood-sugar control, people adhere more closely to treatment regimens, and patients feel more enabled to tackle their illnesses. Empathetic physicians report higher personal wellbeingand are sued less often.

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