“You’re the best physician I’ve ever worked with.”

Oncology fellow at Duke University Medical Center, Jeremy Force, who had never met this particular female patient but, was assigned to stop by her room to discuss her decision to enter the hospice.

Having just attended a course on using empathy to benefit clinical outcomes through understanding patient stories, Force used new found skills to try and understand the emotional experience of this patient at a point where clinical skills were not going to cure her. As he listened intently, not always an easy thing to do as we so often want to ‘fix’ things, the female patient cried. She expressed that she was exhausted and worried about the impact her death would have on her two daughters.

Force acknowledged how hard what she was going through was during the 15-minute conversation they had and shared with her he also had two children and that the hospice was designed to provide her additional support. When he saw her a few day later in the corridor, this patient said to him, “You’re the best physician I’ve ever worked with,” Force remembers her telling him. “I was blown away,” he says. “It was such an honour.”

This story is a couple of years old but it is worth telling again as empathy in communication and the importance of listening to what I refer to in my empathy training as the emotional data to understand the emotional experience of another. Whether I am working with complaints and serious incident teams, patient experience teams, clinical frontline staff or those in leadership roles, it is the emotional experience that they are supported to hear, feel and understand. Missing this vital thing is to carry out often procedures in an exemplary manner, yet leaving someone feeling unheard and sometimes uncared for; the total opposite of what most in the healthcare system who go through rigorous training and grueling workloads, to achieve.

There is now such overwhelming evidence that has linked empathy to greater patient satisfaction, better outcomes, decreased physician burnout, and a lower risk of malpractice suits and errors. Understanding another’s experience is an important part of making a human connection. A human connection that not only supports and gives to the patient but supports and gives back to the medical staff.

Being a good healthcare professional means understanding people not just clinical skills, but I would argue too that being a good patient, requires understanding your healthcare professional too. Empathy is part of communication and communication is not one way. The doctor, for example, building an empathic human connection, allows for this to develop from both sides.

I experienced this from my GP who cared for me, and I do not use that word lightly, because that is exactly what I felt, cared for, when my adopted daughter died unexpectedly in the hospital, leaving me with many tormented questions. His clinical skills were needed to support me as a non-medical person to understand, but his recognition of my emotional experience was vital and communicated in words, body language time and his eyes.

I clearly remember one day, driving to the surgery in a grief-stricken haze. I actually don’t know how I got from my house to the surgery. I was then sitting in front of him in his room, barely able to string two words together. He started fairly clinically and then all of a sudden he stopped and just looked at me. I knew at this point he was seeing what I was feeling and he was not feeling sorry for me, but starting to empathise and feel with me. He saw that day, my torment, pain, sadness, shock. And the reason I know he saw these emotions was because he mirrored them back to me. His face started to change and he too had a look of torment, pain, sadness, and shock. Maybe for different reasons, but in that silent moment, I felt completely understood. It shocked me a little even to see myself reflected in his facial expression but gave me a huge sense of safety at a time that I felt I had little emotional safety to anchor myself too. It consolidated the trusting relationship I had with him as my GP. There are interactions you remember forever and this is one of them. A very good interaction in a very bad situation.

It’s part of why I do what I do now. Why I believe in learning through narratives and total openness and honesty. Yes, study after study is backing up the benefits of training empathy in healthcare, but alongside that, I have felt its benefits, just as Force and his female patient did.

Empathy: the POWER of understanding and imaginatively entering into another person’s feelings

Collins English Dictionary

The original source for Jermey Force story:         https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/03/how-to-teach-doctors-empathy/387784/

To see more on the empathy training I do see: www.empathytrainingltd.co.uk



Empathy: The soft skill that gets hard results

Empathy has long been embedded in counselling practice and as such not always been given the credit as the powerful attribute it should. Along with the battle to get mental health taken seriously, despite overwhelming evidence, both for individuals psychological well-being, but the economic workforce of having people off ill when it all gets too much, empathy gets put on the back burner too. Yet, this ‘soft skill’ of empathy gets hard results.

Within medical settings, empathy positively impacts on patient satisfaction (meaning less complaints), better patient recall of medical information and less repeat visits to the GP, helping both the financial as well as the emotional aspect of care in the health system. It doesn’t stop there either, teachers see pupils with higher motivation and effort when empathy is used. And  Marshal Rosenburg, found with his work on Non Violent Communication, understanding the ‘needs’ of another is the key to conflict resolution, from personal relationships to war torn communities, with empathy being a key skill in hearing and understanding those needs. In study after study in leadership, empathy comes out as the number one skill to possess.

So this so called soft skill really impacts. But why? Well there are 100’s of studies on why and, a fair few out there discrediting them. However, working with the people I work with, primarily in the NHS but also other organisations, I often see people come in feeling a little defensive and burnt our, as they are often already feeling that they are empathic. But what they realise as they travel on a journey with me, connecting on a human level and dealing with some of the less comfortable emotions, is a comonality. As we together identify what empathy means to them and what it feels like when someone really listens and understands, what they identify as good for someone else, corresponds with what they would want also, often recognising when this has not been present and the positive impact when it has. Identifying, validation, compassion, understanding, time, to be seen and heard, to be valued, they realise it is not just about what is good for others, but what we all seek.

It is no coincidence that patient experience is better when the patient feels validated. That the pupil is more motivated knowing they are valued and understood. That conflict is less exacerbated when we can get to the emotional needs someone has. Staying consciously aware of the need for empathy, in organisations, to offer best practice and look after staff well being,  means putting empathy and emotional awareness higher up on the agenda, both culturally and individually. This is from leadership and throughout organisations, investing in it and in the hard results that can be gained from it.

Courses run by C&C Empathy Training and suitable for anyone working in the public sector.

A Journey Through Complaints Using Empathy

“Hospital Trusts must listen well to complaints” Rob Behrens, Parliamentary Health Service Ombudsmen, 17th August, 2017

‘Investigation teams must be compromised of staff who have the skills to apply the Duty of Candour compassionately, and the skills to support individuals at a time of complex bereavement’ CQC Learning Accountability and Candour.

Description: A one-day course ideal for those working with families raising an initial concern or following the official complaints procedure. Delegates will develop the confidence to handle such conversations with reasoned empathy, aiding honest investigations and preventing prolonged psychological harm (Duty of Candour). This course promotes staff mental health and well-being as well as patient focused communication. This course can be adapted for non health and social care professionals.

 “I would highly recommend this course to anyone working in the Complaints sector. The information conveyed on the day was invaluable to gaining a deeper understanding of the role of empathy in dealing with complaints. It also helped elicit a desire to connect more fully with those offering feedback on the service, and really understand their story”

Maddie Bettess, Complaints Manager, Barchester Healthcare

A Journey in Leadership Using Empathy

A multitude of skills are required and one of the most important skills is empathy. The 2015 Global Empathy Index identified that the top 10 businesses (among 160), that had effectively empathic leaders and managers generated 50% more net income per employee, than the bottom 10 businesses.

Description: This one-day course examines, in a unique, thought provoking and human way, the important role empathy and emotional awareness plays in inclusive leadership, staff well-being and productivity, and what erodes it. Delegates will develop an understanding of the psychology of emotionally focused thinking and outcomes and learn essential skills to understand and implement effective relationship focused work, underpinned with empathy and emotional development.