The importance of practicing empathy in telehealth

Beau Peters · December 21, 2020 · Short URL:

Empathy is about demonstrating that you can actually feel where the other person is coming from

For all of the emphasis on data, on science, on technology in modern healthcare, the undeniable fact is that empathy is essential to the practice of medicine. While sympathy is about one human being understanding the pain of another and striving to make them better, empathy is about demonstrating that you can actually feel where the other person is coming from.

And this has meant that, for millennia, medicine has been a preeminently hands-on profession. The healing arts have been a high-touch, close contact endeavor. 

But that’s not so much the case anymore as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on and more and more patients are turning to telehealth for their medical care. What does it mean, though, when doctors can no longer have that essential contact with their patients? How is the doctor/patient relationship impacted when care providers are looking into camera lenses rather than their patients’ eyes? 

The simple truth is that the transition to telehealth may well prevent countless infections, save an untold number of lives, and reduce the burden on the healthcare system in general. But this lack of face-to-face contact may have detrimental effects on the relationship between doctors and their patients. After all, it’s not as easy to empathize with a computer screen as with a living, breathing human being right in front of you.

Why it matters

The importance of empathy in healthcare might seem so obvious that it hardly warrants mentioning. But its significance is even greater than most people realize.

Sympathy enables healthcare providers to understand, relate to, and care about their patients’ feelings. But empathy does even more than that: according to the American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, it increases clinicians’ efficacy in diagnosis and treatment planning. This can be tremendously beneficial in preventing malpractice or negligence

Above all, empathy helps healthcare providers develop deeper, more compassionate, and more positive relationships with their patients. This includes enhancing care providers’ ability to communicate effectively with patients and their families, an attribute shown to boost patient satisfaction and treatment compliance.

Empathizing electronically 

Empathy may be essential to healthcare, but with more and more doctor/patient encounters occurring online, clinicians must take care not to lose this vital element of caregiving. Unfortunately, studies suggest that, thus far, this is an issue that practitioners are struggling with.

Katherine Lawerence, a fellow with the NYU School of Medicine, describes case after case of telehealth patients who complain of excessively brief virtual health visits, of care providers who fail to make eye contact or who are distracted by their phones or activity in the office. Worse, Lawrence warns of the phenomenon of “digital disinhibition,” in which digital environments disrupt or inhibit clinicians’ ability to connect with, or even deeply care about, their patients’ needs. 

This is not callousness, however, as Lawrence affirms. It’s simply a matter of both biology and socialization. The human brain is wired for human-to-human contact, not human-to-machine. And doctors and nurses, traditionally, have been trained for in-person, not virtual, patient care. 

What is to be done?

Cultivating digital empathy may be a challenge, but the good news is that the situation is not hopeless. In fact, while the evidence suggests that many practitioners still have a ways to go when it comes to digital empathy, others are thriving. Since the pandemic began, for instance, the use of telehealth services for mental healthcare has skyrocketed. 

Millions of people are turning to online counseling for life-saving help in this age of social isolation. The success of telehealth in providing a diverse array of counseling and psychiatric care proves that it is possible to deeply empathize with patients, even at a distance. The key is understanding how to do it. Fortunately, many of the same skills that come naturally in face-to-face interactions can easily translate to virtual environments if healthcare providers make a conscious effort to do so.  

For example, video conferences still enable doctors and patients to establish eye contact, which will get those empathy-inducing mirror neurons firing. In addition, with a video conference, doctors will still have the benefit of reading the patient’s facial expressions and seeing, at least in part, their body language.  

Even over the telephone, listening to the patient’s tone of voice for clues about their physical and mental state will not only ensure greater quality of care, but will also help doctors build empathy for and connection with their patients. This is especially true if they incorporate reflection and paraphrasing into their conversations with patients.

No doubt about it, the practice of medicine has profoundly changed in 2020. Now more than ever, healthcare providers are taking care of their patients at a distance. But being physically distanced from patients does not have to mean being emotionally distanced from them. Now more than ever, patients need empathy, compassion, and care, even if these essentials are coming from a distance.

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Beau Peters

Beau Peters is a creative professional with a lifetime of experience in service and care. As a manager, he's learned a slew of tricks of the trade that he enjoys sharing with others who have the same passion and dedication.

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