Exemplifying Clinical Empathy: An Analysis of Physicians’ Narratives About Empathetic Practices in 21st Century Healthcare
Empathy is a therapeutic part of any clinical encounter and doctor-patient relationship. Clinical empathy, the term used for empathetic practice in medicine, is defined as the clinician’s ability to identify a patient’s perspectives and experiences and then to reciprocate this understanding back to the patient. Numerous studies have demonstrated the benefits of clinical empathy in medical practice—improved patient satisfaction and adherence to treatment recommendations and plans, more accurate diagnoses, reduced distress, fewer medical malpractice claims, increased patient autonomy and agency, and better health and treatment outcomes. However, as an increasing number of medical institutions and practitioners acknowledge empathetic care as a necessary component in healthcare, many patients do not yet experience it in their clinical encounters. A recent survey of 800 hospitalized patients even found that only 53% felt that their doctors were empathic towards to them. The purpose of this pilot study is to analyze and engage with physician’s narratives regarding the ways empathy is embodied in modern medical practice. By interviewing a sample of physicians to collect their narratives, I examine four key areas: 1) physicians’ definitions of empathy and what is means to be a good clinician, 2) techniques of practicing empathetic care, 3) for whom and when empathy is used in the clinical encounter, and 4) challenges that prevent fully practicing compassionate care. Through qualitative analysis of the interviews, it was found that while empathetic care is acknowledged as a foundational aspect of medicine, it is also not a dichotomous practice—that is, empathetic care is practiced on a continuous scale depending on the clinical and social context of the patient’s case. By analyzing how the “call for empathy” is translated into daily clinical practice, we can better understand empathy’s pitfalls and challenges and how to create best practices while educating clinicians.