How Does “Empathetics” Teach Physicians to Be More Empathetic?

Empathetics’ approach for teaching empathy to physicians includes three primary components: neuroscience, verbal and nonverbal responsiveness, and mindfulness.

The neuroscience of empathy has demonstrated that empathy is hard-wired into the human brain, yet a well-documented decline in empathy begins during the rigors of medical training and the recovery rate is diminishing post-training. Empathy is a highly valued capacity in health care and patients have been calling for greater patient-centered and compassionate care for the past decade. The medical world has become increasingly technologically advanced, resulting both in highly sophisticated diagnostic and therapeutic tools and also greater challenges to the interpersonal relationships with clinicians prized by patients.

Responding to this need, Empathetics has developed evidence-based, interactive empathy training that is grounded in neuroscience and delivered in a web-based format. The training is delivered in a neuroscience framework that shifts the perception of empathy as a “soft science” to a mutable capacity and skill that can be learned and honed. The integration of the neurobiology and physiology of emotions has captured the attention of medical professionals, whose response has been enthusiastic.

Empathetics’ training and education emphasizes self- and other-awareness of nonverbal and verbal skills. The human brain is exquisitely sensitive to signs of connection in relationships. This begins early in life when infants search for their mother’s gaze and respond with smiles and delight and happy facial expressions, which are then mirrored back by responsive parents. These signs of attention and empathy are also reflected in tone of voice, posture, touch, and appropriate responses to emotions. When patients suffer, they seek validation and compassion from their caregivers. Empathic behaviors can be learned by reorienting clinicians to the importance of careful listening and reading their patients’ cues.

Self-empathy and mindfulness are also at the core of our training. Clinicians cannot demonstrate empathy fully when physically or emotionally depleted. Care for their own physical, emotional, and spiritual needs are essential for mindful practice. We teach breathing and mindful meditation exercises for self-care and self-management.

Empathetics’ training is based on pilot studies and randomized controlled trials that demonstrated a significant increase in patient perception of physician empathy. In today’s health-care setting, where patients seek more empathic care and reimbursements to hospitals are now tied to patient ratings, Empathetics is dedicated to providing a timely solution to this vexing problem.

Dr. Helen Riess is the co-founder, chief scientist, and chairman of Empathetics; the director of the Empathy and Relational Science Program at Massachusetts General Hospital; and an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Category: Q&A

Tagged:

One Response

  1. My doctoral dissertation (1980) was on the teaching of empathy skills to medical students. Thirty years later, I have come full circle with the design of empathic education.
    Please visit my website.

Leave a Reply