In a passage on “decorum,” circa 400 BC, Hippocrates himself wrote that “the patient, though conscious that his condition is perilous, may recover his health simply through his contentment with the goodness of the physician.” Echoing this ancient thought, contemporary evidence shows that doctors who are better listeners and communicators – those who exhibit “emotional intelligence” in their interactions – achieve higher patient satisfaction, adherence to treatments, and better health outcomes.
In fact, according to a review of reports by the nonprofit Joint Commission almost 80 percent of investigated adverse health outcomes in hospitals are the result of physicians’ poor communication. Additional academic research, including a study conducted at the University of Zurich and Dr. Helen Reiss’s work at Harvard Medical School on the neurophysiology of empathy, point to further scientific evidence that empathy is a skill that can be improved.
There’s a growing body of research that suggests that empathy in medical students decreases over the course of their training. This often happens as they transition from “civilian” to clinician, putting up a protective wall of objectivity between themselves and their patients. Other studies have shown that empathy is constrained when it comes to interactions between people of different races, nationalities, and faiths.
More empathetic physicians are desirable not only because it is the sacred mission of doctors to be compassionate providers, but also because a good interpersonal relationship between patient and caregiver is essential to best-quality medical care.
Putting it to the test
To test the concept of using film to teach empathy during our initial research phase, we produced a video module entitled “Listening” written by Delia Ephron.