Can people learn to be empathetic? A new study reveals that they can. Building on research over the last decade that has shown that empathetic observers have brain activity, heart rate and skin electrical conductance that mirror those of the person undergoing the emotional experience — observing a friend’s hand getting slammed in a car door, for example, causes us to flinch because an image of the accident gets mapped onto the pain and threat sensors in our own brain. Dr. Helen Riess, director of the Empathy and Relational Science Program in the department of psychiatry at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, created a series of empathy “training modules” for doctors.
Read an article by Pauline W. Chen in the New York Times Health | Science.
Physician empathy is an essential attribute of the patient–physician relationship and is associated with better outcomes, greater patient safety and fewer malpractice claims.
We tested whether an innovative empathy training protocol grounded in neuroscience could improve physician empathy as rated by patients.
Randomized controlled trial.
We randomly assigned residents and fellows from surgery, medicine, anesthesiology, psychiatry, ophthalmology, and orthopedics (N = 99, 52% female, mean age 30.6 ± 3.6) to receive standard post-graduate medical education or education augmented with three 60-minute empathy training modules.
Patient ratings of physician empathy were assessed within one-month pre-training and between 1–2 months post-training with the use of the Consultation and Relational Empathy (CARE) measure. Each physician was rated by multiple patients (pre-mean = 4.6 ± 3.1; post-mean 4.9 ± 2.5), who were blinded to physician randomization. The primary outcome was change score on the patient-rated CARE.
The empathy training group showed greater changes in patient-rated CARE scores than the control (difference 2.2; P = 0.04). Trained physicians also showed greater changes in knowledge of the neurobiology of empathy (difference 1.8; P < 0.001) and in ability to decode facial expressions of emotion (difference 1.9; P < 0.001).
A brief intervention grounded in the neurobiology of empathy significantly improved physician empathy as rated by patients, suggesting that the quality of care in medicine could be improved by integrating the neuroscience of empathy into medical education.