WIHI: Reclaiming Empathy — Best Practices for Engaging with Patients

Date: April 10, 2014

  • Helen Riess, MD, Director, Empathy and Relational Science Program, Department of Psychiatry, Massachusetts General Hospital
  • Stacie Pallotta, MPH, Senior Director, Office of Patient Experience, Cleveland Clinic
  • Martha Hayward, Lead for Public and Patient Engagement, Institute for Healthcare Improvement
Empathy is not the same thing as sympathy. In the first instance, we feel seen and truly heard; sympathy tends to maintain a distance between two people, often deliberately so. One of the best explanations of the distinction, and why empathy can be so much more powerful, is an online video narrated by human vulnerability expert Dr. Brené Brown. And then there’s the Cleveland Clinic’s video about empathy, directed at health professionals. This moving reminder of the stories behind the faces of patients that pass through health care every day has been viewed on YouTube over a million times. 

Why the seemingly sudden need to draw the attention of doctors and nurses to the humanness of the patients before them? Is it because, as some fear, empathy is becoming harder and harder for health professionals to feel and express in the course their jobs? Could be, but there’s nothing inexorable about the loss of empathy in health care today. And, as we learned on this WIHI, there are effective ways to help today’s busy and often overwhelmed caregivers reconnect with their own feelings and the feelings of others, namely their patients. 

At the Cleveland Clinic, Stacie Pallotta is part of a team that’s looking at empathy as one important part of an overall strategy to improve patient experience. Dr. Helen Riess, who specializes in the neuroscience of emotions and has given a TEDx talk on the power of empathy, is turning her findings into “empathy education” for health professionals. She’s also found that if students’ empathy towards patients tends to erode over the course of their medical training, as evidence suggests, new research shows that additional training can either disrupt or reverse this process. 

We hope you'll listen to this vibrant discussion on what caregivers can do to reconnect their emotions to the patients they care for.
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