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"The pressure is really on," said psychiatrist Helen Riess. The director of the empathy and relational science program at Massachusetts General Hospital, she designed "Empathetics," a series of online courses for physicians.

"Empathy is a cognitive attribute, not a personality trait," said Mohammadreza Hojat, a research professor of psychiatry at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. Hojat has developed the Jefferson Scale of Empathy, a tool used by researchers to measure it.
One study has found that, on average, doctors interrupt their patients within 18 seconds.
Columbia University School of Medicine has pioneered a program in narrative medicine, which emphasizes the importance of understanding patients' life stories in providing compassionate care.  
How to Teach Doctors Empathy, "Being a good doctor requires an understanding of people, not just science." by Sandra G. Boodman, The Atlantic, March 15, 2015 

It is imperative that we train our medical professionals to have more empathy.

This article was recently sent to me from a Physician Assistant Student from Florida. I received her permission to publish it on my website as I feel it has an important message from a student in the field.  

I’m writing as a Physician Assistant student finishing her didactic year in school. While we have been taught endless hours in the science of medicine, pharmacology, and pathophysiology in preparation for our future patients, if we’ve been taught one thing consistently it’s this: learn to compartmentalize. Learn to detach your emotions from your medical practice so you may carry on with your work day and learn to place your patients in a Rolodex within your brain so you can pull their file when you need it. However, is it not true the best patient contact experiences come from sharing an empathetic bond and that empathy has been proven to have a beneficial impact on patients in diagnosis and treatment?

    The purpose of empathetic feelings is not to label patient’s emotions, or risk overidentifying with them, but to recognize what it may feel like to experience something. It’s important to note that empathy is about focusing attention on the other person, not always resonating with them, but understanding a strong nonverbal sense of where they stand. Empathetic attunement guides questions, timing and tone of history taking, which may make or break an honest conversation. In the long run, empathetic communication is associated with better patient satisfaction, improved adherence to treatment, and fewer malpractice complaints (Decety & Fotopoulou, 2014). It even corresponds to increased practitioner health, as you are more engaged in work and less likely to experience burn-out (Halpern, 2003). Regardless of any time barrier, personal anxiety, or tension, these skills are important for medical students everywhere to appreciate and utilize as a core aspect of a patient’s care.


Leah Blizard,

Nova Southeastern University

Ft. Myers PA Class 2018 


Decety, J., & Fotopoulou, A. (2014). Why empathy has a beneficial impact on others in medicine: unifying theories. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 8, 457. http://doi.org/10.3389/fnbeh.2014.00457

Halpern, J. (2003). What is Clinical Empathy? Journal of General Internal Medicine, 18(8), 670–674. http://doi.org/10.1046/j.1525-1497.2003.21017.x


I read a lot of books and one of my latest favorite ones is "If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? My adventures in the art and science of relating with communication by Alan Alda
One chapter is: Training Doctors to Have More Empathy
Alda shared that Helen Riess had expressed to him that once she had realized that she had been missing her patient's emotional ups and downs, that it changed the way she related to patients, and it changed the way she trained other doctors to care for their patients.
She taught doctors that empathy isn't something you either have or don't have. Riess stated, "I introduce them to the neuroscience of empathy" - in other words, she teaches them how our brains are wired to receive the thoughts and feelings of others. Then she caught me by surprise with this:
"Nowhere in medical school is this taught- the whole concept that there is Theory of Mind- that we can do a kind of mental travel and enter the mind of others."
Helen Riess has her class of doctors sit and share a story to the person sitting next to them. Once they're engaged, she brings the awareness of their connection to the surface. "Did the person you told the story to seem interested? How did you know?" The doctors usually say they could tell because the other person was nodding thier head, making eye contact, laughing at their jokes. They have the experience of being listened to, and they become aware that they can listen more deeply to the person listening to them.  

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