The Importance of Empathy in Nurses and Caregivers

Nurses and caregivers have one of the most demanding but rewarding jobs of any profession. Knowing that you've saved or enriched someone’s life makes the long hours and difficult days worthwhile.

As a technology company, we talk a lot about the positive impact technology can have on the patient experience, but we know that the best technology in the world cannot compensate for the empathetic care of nurses. In fact, of all the characteristics that make a great nurse, empathy may be the most essential. Nurses are often on the front lines delivering bad news to patients who are scared and confused about everything from their medical condition to how they will pay their mounting hospital bill.

You might assume empathy would come naturally to someone who enters the field of healthcare, but the truth is, empathetic clinical care is often in short supply. Young nurses often lack the life experience necessary to consistently provide an empathetic response, while many experienced nurses are numb to it from the many patients they have cared for over the course of their careers.

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Empathy is a complex emotion and can be a complex concept for nurses who are working with so many patients with so many different kinds of needs. Responding with empathy requires nurses to be able to put themselves in their patient’s shoes, see situations from their perspective and demonstrate that they understand their feelings to confirm they’re getting an accurate read. Most importantly, it requires them to act on that understanding in appropriate, therapeutic ways.

Why Empathy Matters

While there may be debate about whether empathy scientifically improves patient outcomes, a consumer health survey conducted by the global consultant McKinsey found empathy to be a major driver of patient satisfaction. Respondents ranked nurse empathy over all other measures of patient satisfaction, including pain management, room environment and outcome of care (see survey results below). 

Drivers of Patient Satisfaction 

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With patients putting a greater value on empathy than ever before, it is imperative for hospitals to understand and consistently track underlying behaviors that lead to empathetic responses, such as consistent rounding and prompt response to call bells. Empathy is a skill reflected in HCAHPS scores, which partially rates hospitals based on how well caregivers communicate with patients, keep them informed and respond to their needs, but these scores are based on perception and the patient’s recollection of their experience versus objective, real-time data collected during the care delivery process. Operational insights that lead to sustainable change depend on strategically developed business objectives and supporting data that offer a true measure of success or failure rather than the one-size-fits-all approach provided by HCAHPS.

Empathy can dramatically improve the caregiving experience for nurses and their patients, as clinicians at Massachusetts General Hospital have discovered. The hospital is home to a research and training program that explores how empathy can benefit patients and how clinicians can best deliver it. Its research, recently featured in the Boston Globe, reveals how establishing a positive rapport with patients can lead to better cooperation and improved outcomes for patients with chronic conditions such as diabetes, asthma, hypertension, obesity and osteoarthritis.

“Empathy training enhances relationships, increases job satisfaction and improves patient outcomes,” said Dr. Helen Reiss, director and founder of the hospital’s Empathy and Relationship Science program, in an interview with the Globe.

Empathy spurs a more authentic response to patient needs and gives nurses a deeper awareness of what is going on with each individual patient. This prevents caregivers from becoming desensitized to routine tasks, such as responding to alarms on machines or helping patients out of bed. These tasks must be handled with care each time to avoid adverse events such as falls or medication errors. Hospitals that practice empathetic care benefit from greater patient compliance, which in turn, helps them reduce readmission rates and avoid Medicare penalties.

How Patients View Empathy

For patients, empathy is powerful because it changes their experience. Poor communication with caregivers can leave them feeling frustrated, neglected and confused about what they need to do to improve their condition. Whether discussing medical instructions, test results or treatment options, patients appreciate transparency and clarity.

By considering the needs of patients and their family, friends and loved ones, nurses can make authentic connections that result in better care—not just when patients are admitted, but also after being released from the hospital. According to a MedCare review of more than 100 studies, patient adherence rises by 12 percent when clinicians receive training in communication skills.

Empathy among clinicians has also been linked to a decrease in malpractice claims at hospitals. When those caring for patients take time to get to know them and their families and build mutual understanding and respect, everyone can feel confident knowing that each step of the care process was communicated clearly and delivered as thoughtfully as possible at the time.

How to Establish Empathy

Communication training can help foster more empathy in hospitals, as this Wall Street Journal article illustrates, citing the University of Missouri School of Medicine as an example. After instituting a communication training program at its medical center, the university raised patient satisfaction scores from one of the lowest rankings in the nation to well above the national average in just two years.

Hospitals can find consultants who specialize in teaching clinicians how to converse and follow up with patients, deliver news about medical conditions and keep patients informed. But emphatic care is about more than saying the right thing at the right time. Empathizing with patients means getting to know them on a deeper level to understand what they truly need and how to best communicate with them. 

Empathy is just as vital as technology for delivering meaningful care to individuals and ensuring patient adherence—and it should be at the center of any digital health strategy, according to healthcare technologists Peter Borden and Rebecca Pineault.

“As health providers accept the new challenge of integrating digital tools into healthcare, they must also accept empathy as a vital sign they can no longer ignore,” Borden and Pineault write in this Pixel Health article.

Improving outcomes and responsiveness to patient needs starts with improving communication between caregivers and patients. To achieve this, hospitals must establish a culture of empathy and adopt technologies that promote communication and coordinated care. Learn how our data-driven platform can help by scheduling a free consultation with us.

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Topics: Blog, Patient Experience

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