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A Dose of Empathy Boosts Healing and the Bottom Line


By Amy Cowperthwait

​Founder and CEO, Avkin

Some people think treating a patient with empathy means simply being accepting or friendly, but there's a lot more to it than that. True empathy is connecting with a patient by trying to imagine what they're feeling - like "putting yourself in the patient's shoes" – then acting on those feelings by providing appropriate physical care or emotional support. True empathy is listening and leaning in, even to the silent, thoughtful moments.

If you've received medical treatment from a rude, rushed or insensitive doctor or nurse, you know the importance of a good provider-patient relationship. But it's more important than the positive emotions and connection you feel: research shows that empathetic, thoughtful care can actually improve patient outcomes.

A 2012 study of primary care physicians and their diabetic patients found that of physicians with different levels of empathy, the most empathetic had more patients with fewer complications.

"Empathy is essential to any healing or caring process," says Roman Krznaric, the author of Empathy: Why It Matters and How to Get It. "Empathy involves not just being extremely attentive to what another person is saying to you, but also trying to focus on that person's feelings and needs, and giving them the opportunity to express those feelings and needs."*

Empathy for patients is at the heart and soul of the products that my company, Avkin, provides. When nurse and healthcare provider education uses manikins, a disconnect is instantly felt. Learners can't respond to non-verbal behaviors or receive real-time feedback from the "patient" as care is administered.

Lifelike Avkin devices that resemble body parts and are worn by human "patients" provide feedback through haptic sensations that the "patient" can act out in real-time for the learner. The feedback enhances a learner's ability to empathize with a patient's discomfort, thoughts and feelings and adjust treatment to make their care more effective and reduce suffering for the patient.

There's more good news about empathetic care. More and more health systems are building it into the DNA of their operations—from additional screening for staff hires to facility design to changing the dynamic within the care-team structure. In addition to enhancing the well-being of patients, healthcare providers who treat patients with a dose of empathy are more effective and make fewer errors, which in turn reduce risk and lowers costs to the patient and institution.

So, when we ask a patient how they feel, let's make very sure we listen to the answer. Because empathy starts with listening.

* "Empathy by Design," The Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/brand-connect/cleveland-clinic/healing-while-caring-for-the-mind/

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