Medicine prides itself on its objectives: normalizing a high blood pressure, lowering a high blood sugar. Doctors take victory in achieving these objectives.
Unfortunately, there has not been the same emphasis on individual patient desires, what victories the patient wants from those visits to the doctor. However, lately the medical literature has begun to reflect an emphasis on satisfying the patient’s sense of quality of care—the feeling the patient has as a result of being cared for.
For several years there has been active research undertaken in the field of empathy. Currently, researchers are studying the relationship between empathy and the approach to patient care, particularly the holistic approach to patient care. A study published last year in the “International Journal of Medical Education” examined the effects of reflective writing among health care providers, and this showed the power of narrative and reflective writing to increase individual empathy. The conclusion is that medical schools need to encourage reflection and empathic behavior as means to improve the delivery of health care.
Empathy facilitates patient trust and disclosure. Physicians express empathy not only by grasping the personal meanings of patients' words, but also by (automatically, hopefully) matching patients' nonverbal style; for example, their vocal tones. When doctors attune to patients nonverbally, patients feel more comfortable and give fuller histories. It is as if an additional, reinforcing level of communication is occurring. This can only aid the doctor-patient relationship, and add to the positive medical outcomes of the care provided.