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Empathy can be taught and learned with evidence-based education
  1. Helen Riess1,2
  1. 1Empathy and Relational Science Program, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
  2. 2Department of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
  1. Correspondence to Dr Helen Riess, Empathy and Relational Science Program, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts 02114, USA; HRiess{at}Partners.Org

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Empathy is a reigning topic in healthcare because of its relationship to the aims of medical practice: improved health outcomes1 adherence to treatment recommendations, improved quality of care and improved patient and provider experience.2 At the same time, empathy reduces clinician burnout by providing meaningful connection with patients and alignment with the purpose of the medical profession: to reduce suffering and enhance well-being3 while also reducing the risk of medical errors and malpractice claims.4

While many believe some people are empathic by nature, the capacity to act empathically is mutable and can be depleted in challenging times. Studies have shown that empathy decreases during medical training, and the science of empathy shows that empathy can be downregulated5 and also upregulated by neuroscience-based interventions.6 Certainly, the last nearly 2 years of practicing in a pandemic has beaten empathy out of many of us, due to the difficult working conditions, persistently high workload and personal anxieties. However, particularly in times like these it is important to pause and find ways to teach—or reteach it.

Empathy is a capacity that includes the ability to perceive the emotions and thoughts of others, the ability to process that input with perspective taking and self-regulation skills and the ability to experience empathic concern that ideally leads to empathic responses from the physician. When we teach empathy, we are not just asking healthcare providers to act like they care; we are teaching medical communication skills that result in a gratifying connection (on both sides) between …

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Footnotes

  • Handling editor Ellen J Weber

  • Funding The author has not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests HR is Chief Scientific Officer of Empathetics, Inc.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

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