Four ways empathy can improve patient care

It’s vital that patients are treated with compassion, and that professionals are empowered to show it. We look at four ways services can be more empathetic to improve care.
man stood in a hospital gown whilst a nurse looks at his chest

Being treated with compassion can make a big difference to whether people feel positively about the care they receive. When people encounter a receptionist who is rude, or a doctor who doesn’t listen to them, they can be put off asking for support when they need it most.

According to research from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), patients relate better to professionals who are empathetic and interested in what they say. Our own evidence supports this view, and we know that people find it easier to discuss their concerns and seek medical advice early when they feel supported by healthcare staff.

It's clear that the NHS workforce is facing pressures. A recent survey by the NHS revealed that nearly 40% of staff who responded felt unwell because of work related stress. However, if professionals are empowered to give empathetic care it can save services time and money in the future, as well as improving patient satisfaction.

For example, we’ve heard more positive stories of people with mental health conditions who could get the right support quickly because their GP was compassionate.  

I was extremely distressed and anxious, [the doctor] was calm and gentle and explained everything calmly and kindly and got me the care I needed at hospital…I’m ashamed and embarrassed seeing doctors and if she hadn’t been so wonderful with me, I could have ended up not going to hospital and ended up much more poorly.
— Personal story shared with Healthwatch Leeds

How can health services be more empathetic?

  1. Take the time to listen to people and take their concerns seriously
    People should be able to seek help and ask questions when they have a concern. When staff are too busy, people can feel that their needs are not a priority or that their concerns are dismissed without explanation, meaning they’re less likely to ask for help again.

    The NHS’s future plans highlight the importance of preventing and spotting conditions earlier. Our research shows that the public support this approach and want an NHS that helps them stay well.

  2. Provide consistent care
    People who have long-term conditions, such as diabetes, don’t always have a relationship with the professionals who treat them. Usually this is because they see different professionals at each appointment. People tell us they would value having a single point of contact who understands their needs, and could help provide consistent care across different services.

    While this idea can be supported by system wide projects, such as improved record sharing, it only addresses part of the problem.

  3. Understand that people want to hear from others who can relate to their experiences
    Although clinicians are the experts in diagnosing and suggesting treatment options, other factors affect patient decisions. We know from our work, that while people welcome increased investment in mental health services, what they want is more support from others who have experience living with the condition.

    While peer support should never be a replacement for clinically trained professionals, it could help provide a greater level of empathy in the support offered by the NHS.

  4. Use technology to give professionals more time to provide care
    People welcome the use of more technology in health and care. They can see how it can be used to provide support for simple transactions and faster communications, ultimately reducing staff administration. This would help professionals free up more time to focus on giving care with a human touch. 

What we hear about empathy across different services

Empathy can make a real difference to the quality of care people receive across all types of services. Over the last month, people have shared their feedback on some of the ways they've experienced a lack of empathy. For example:

  • Homeless people said they were turned away from some A&E departments and felt stigmatised and spoken down to by staff
  • Poor communication in maternity wards left some people feeling isolated and at fault when the delivery of their baby hadn't gone to plan
  • People accessing mental health support felt they weren't taken seriously by clinicians and were spoken to negatively
  • Some people felt their GP disregarded their views and showed a general lack of interest during their appointments

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