Pauline W. Chen, M.D. and writer for the New York Times wonders if doctors can learn to be more empathic with their patients. Research has shown that greater physician empathy conveys benefits far beyond the exam room… leading to better patient outcomes, more satisfied patients and fewer medical errors.  Over the last decade studies have suggested that empathic observers have brain activity, heart rate and skin electrical conductance that mirror those of the person going through the emotional experience.

Dr. Helen Riess, Director of the Empathy and Relational Studies Program in the department of psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital has created a series of “training modules” for doctors.  The program is designed to teach doctors methods for recognizing key nonverbal cues and facial expressions in patients, as well as strategies for dealing with their responses to emotional situations.  According to Dr. Riess, “People tend to believe that you are either born with empathy or not.  But empathy can be taught, and you can improve.”  Doctors who completed the course interrupted their patients less, maintained better eye contact, and were able to stay calmer in situations where patients became frustrated, mad or upset.  “We have the neurophysiology data that validates and helps move medicine back to a real balance between science and the art” said Dr. Riess.


After doing research for the New York Times article, Dr. Chen tried out some of the training methods to see how these newly acquired skills could help her in her practice.  She found it challenging initially, trying to integrate the additional information when her mind was already thinking through possible diagnoses, and treatment plans.  Eventually though…. “It became fun, a return to the kind of focused one-on-one interactions that drew me to medicine in the first place.”  She knew the training made a difference in her communication skills when a patient said “Thanks doc, I have never felt so listened to before.”    New York Times   6-21-12

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