Why Empathy is an Important Skill for Medical Students to Learn

Compassionate care in the medical field is an essential part of patient care and compassionate bedside manner, which includes empathy, is crucial for a patient’s recovery.

Health blogger Sara Heath reported on a HealthTap survey that found 85% of patients favor compassion and empathy over cheaper medical costs. In the same survey 91% of providers agreed that compassion and empathy are important and enhance patient care.


What is compassionate care?

Compassionate care, or empathy, is essentially the art of building genuine rapport with patients. Providers develop this rapport by entering their world to better understand their concerns and fears and then use what they understand about a patient’s perspective to guide them toward wellness with the least resistance possible.

For example, say a patient needs to have blood drawn to look for a staph infection, but that patient is terrified of needles and fights off every doctor who attempts to take their blood. A provider trained in empathy would sit with that patient and talk to them to find out more about their fear to establish a connection of trust with the patient until, eventually, the patient will agree to the blood test.


Patients need empathy from providers

Many patients who refuse treatments at first end up changing their mind when an empathetic doctor makes the request. The reason so many patients refuse advice and care is because they feel ignored and neglected by medical staff.

Nurses are in the optimal position to provide empathetic day-to-day connection with patients. Nurse.com explains that simply being with a patient and ensuring they feel heard, understood, and validated is all it takes.

Many who seek medical help feel scared, frustrated, angry, or depressed due to their illness or disability. When doctors and nurses lack empathy, many patients retreat further into negative emotional spaces, which can prolong their recovery or cause them to refuse help entirely.

Empathy has the power to break through these barriers and ease the emotional burden patients carry. Patients do better in their recovery with less stress, but that’s just one reason medical students need to learn empathy.


Compassionate care encourages patients to follow their doctor’s advice

A doctor can prescribe medication, treatment, and therapy, but those remedies are only effective when the patient follows through.

When a patient is in a negative emotional state of mind, they’re generally less receptive to their provider’s advice. For example, a patient with critically high blood pressure might feel bitter and hopeless about their situation if they’ve never been able to control their hypertension. In that state of mind, a patient is less likely to follow advice to change their diet and take medication, even if it’s only temporary.

When a patient is hopeless about their situation, they’ve likely been to multiple doctors already. They may have followed their provider’s advice in the beginning, but when nothing worked, they gave up. They won’t see why they should keep trying when nothing worked in the past.

Bringing empathy to the bedside of a patient who has already been through difficult times with their condition can make a huge difference in their willingness to listen and try new solutions or give old solutions another chance.


Empathy makes patients feel heard

There’s a tendency to want to fix people when they’re struggling with a difficult problem. When someone shares a deep pain, the tendency is to say something like, “Have you tried this solution? What if you did this?” While people do genuinely want solutions to their problems, in their moment of sharing, they need to be heard, not fixed. Listening is what creates connection, and that connection is what patients want and need.


Being empathetic can make patients less combative

Combative patients can be difficult to deal with and some patients will refuse to follow their provider’s advice, no matter how simple the task.

Empathetic providers know combative patients are struggling and use compassion to help patients to comply with their requests. When providers build strong, empathetic rapport with patients, normally combative patients begin to follow instructions.


Empathy skills transfer to a medical student’s personal life          

Empathy is strengthened through experience. Over time, a medical provider will become better at providing compassionate care and will develop the skills needed to work with some of the most difficult patients.

Since medical school students aren’t heavily involved in patient care, they need to be trained in the art of compassionate care as part of their curriculum.


Empathy and compassion are teachable

Although empathy comes naturally to many people, medical schools can teach empathy and compassion in a formal training environment. A clinical training environment can be set up to use simulation training and provide valuable feedback to medical students.

A clinical training environment that simulates patient care is crucial for producing medical staff with high level empathy skills. On the surface, empathy is about understanding a patient’s situation from their perspective. However, medical providers need to use that understanding to guide patients to comply with treatment protocols. That’s where simulation training is most valuable.


Simulation training provides valuable feedback

In a simulation training environment, a group of students can simulate caring for a patient and receive feedback on their mannerisms, responses, and communication skills. When simulation training is recorded on video, instructors can guide students toward effective communication by showing them exactly where to adjust their interactions.


Video is a proven tool to better educate and train medical students to learn important skills for their future job in the medical field. Learn more about VALT to see how you can take your students’ education to the next level.

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