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Empathy in Healthcare: 7 Benefits

Empathy is the latest buzzword in the business world.
Ad Age is calling it

“the official marketing buzzword of 2017” – but empathy in healthcare? It’s so important that the two co-exist. The Harvard Business Review has been compiling a list, ranking the most and least empathetic companies since 2014.

Do you agree with the list of top 15? – source

Empathy is more than just a fad or a trendy piece of jargon to throw around, though. There is solid evidence connecting empathy to higher rates of business success, among other positive metrics.

There’s likely no industry where empathy matters more than healthcare. Healthcare companies can, and should, be paying careful attention to how empathetic they are in terms of company culture, in overall messaging, and especially in the consumer/patient experience.


What is Empathy?

Empathy is one of those words that most people think they’re familiar with but we might all have slightly different definitions. This is made even more murky by the tendency to confuse empathy with related concepts like compassion and sympathy.

The old cliche of walking in another person’s shoes can be a helpful way to understand what empathy is. It’s being aware of another person’s feelings. Empathy is understanding, or trying to understand, another person’s perspective – and potentially even feeling what they are feeling.

Bestselling author, speaker, and scholar Brené Brown defines empathy as “feeling with people.”

Empathy in healthcare can be thought of as clinical empathy instead of just empathy. In the Journal of General Internal Medicine, Jodi Halpern, MD, PhD describes clinical empathy as a more detached mode of understanding. The Society for General Internal Medicine describes empathy in healthcare as:

“the act of correctly acknowledging the emotional state of another without experiencing that state oneself.”

In other words, clinical empathy is an intellectual understanding of the emotions of others.

To further clarify, here are definitions of compassion and sympathy:

Compassion is closer to empathy than sympathy is, but they are still quite different. Derived from Latin, compassion means “to suffer with.” Compassion usually involves a desire or drive to alleviate the suffering of the other person. However, the intellectual understanding of the other person’s emotions may be missing with compassion.

Sympathy, on the other hand, is an emotional response to the suffering of another person. It is when you realize and understand that something bad has happened to someone else and you imagine that pain. Unlike with empathy, you don’t actually feel that pain or even try to understand how it feels. You might feel sad and you may feel concern or tenderness for the person but you remain detached both intellectually and emotionally. The Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine describes sympathy as a “self-orientated perspective” in contrast to the other-orientated perspective of empathy.

Empathy is unique in combining the intellectual perspective with emotional understanding. Compassion and sympathy are reactive responses while empathy is a skill that can be learned and developed.


Why Empathy in Healthcare is Important

From the perspective of the patient or health consumer, so much of the healthcare experience is centered around difficult things. Being sick, whether with a cold or with cancer, can be annoying at best and terrifying at worst. It’s stressful to be sick.

Even in the happy moments in healthcare – having a baby or going into remission – emotions tend to be high and will usually have an undercurrent of darker emotions like fear.  Add onto that stress the complexities of navigating the healthcare system, from insurance to bills to paperwork.

Then, there is healthcare literacy. The average patient might be overwhelmed. “Fake news” is a major problem in healthcare and confusion is another distressing emotion many patients might be feeling.

But does it actually make a difference when the patient and health consumer is treated with empathy?

Empirically, yes!


What Happens When You Show Empathy in Healthcare?

Empathy in healthcare is more than just a nice idea. There are a number of tangible results that healthcare companies can expect when they make the effort to be more empathetic.

For the purpose of not only driving more business to healthcare companies, but also to bring more patient-centric solutions to market that health consumers will actually use and adopt, here are seven benefits of employing empathy in healthcare:


  1. Better patient outcomes.
    A number of studies have shown that patients have better outcomes when they are treated by physicians with a higher degree of empathy. One example is a 2012 study from Italy that specifically found that diabetic patients treated by doctors with more empathy had “a significantly lower rate of acute metabolic complications.”

Better outcomes for diabetes patients – source


  1. Better patient compliance.

Perhaps a major reason for better patient outcomes is the higher rate of patient compliance when they are treated empathetically. Feeling seen and heard makes patients more likely to listen to and follow the recommended course of action. This can be explained in part by trust.

When patients are treated with empathy, trust builds. This trust makes patients more likely to follow provider recommendations, to take medications as prescribed, and to make positive lifestyle changes.

This also means better patient or customer retention. When there is trust, the patient is far less likely to turn elsewhere for their healthcare needs.

The research is clear – source


  1. Better patient satisfaction.
    No matter the type of company, there is typically a goal of customer satisfaction. It’s why “user experience” is another popular buzzword. Not surprisingly, when healthcare customers are treated empathetically, they tend to be happier.

Empathy in healthcare can even potentially leave a patient feeling satisfied after what would typically be a stressful experience, like a call with a billing department or an insurance company about a medical bill. Being sick can be a dehumanizing experience.

An empathetic experience can be humanizing and this shift tends to leave the patient happier. Patient satisfaction in healthcare is a major problem at present.

A recent survey by Prophet made that abundantly clear when it found that a shocking 81% of consumers are unsatisfied with their healthcare experience.

Some troubling statistics about patient satisfaction – source


  1. Better communication.

Empathy is a kind of nonverbal communication and its presence automatically improves communication. Empathy can help deepen understanding of complex topics, both because an empathetic explainer will notice when a point isn’t getting through and will react accordingly, and because a patient or customer may feel less hesitant about asking questions.

Poor physician-patient communication is cited as a contributing factor in at least 40% of malpractice suits, according to the Wall Street Journal. Closing the communication gap would go a long way.

An easy-to-remember acronym for practicing empathy – source


  1. Improved perception.

Empathy in healthcare can help boost how well a company is perceived in the mind of a customer. Research has shown that being treated empathically leads to “tangible increases in trust.”

Being seen as trustworthy is a primary goal for most healthcare companies and empathy is one of the fastest ways to get there. Perception is another big problem in healthcare right now.

The Prophet survey found that nearly half of respondents believe the healthcare system is more concerned about money than people’s well-being. To change this perception, empathy is key.

There is a big gap between provider beliefs and patient experience – source


  1. Attracting and retaining better employees.

Belinda Parmar, creator of the Lady Geek Global Empathy Index explained to Forbes that more empathetic companies have cultures where their employees thrive. This helps to attract the best talent and to retain that talent.

Reducing turnover is a huge source of cost savings for any company, and a company culture rich in empathy will have less turnover. There even tends to be a boost to overall productivity when the company is known for ranking high in empathy.

A study from Businessolver found that:

  • 40% of respondents would work longer hours for a more empathetic employer
  • 56% of respondents would stay in their jobs if they felt valued, and
  • 64% would be willing to work for less pay for a more empathetic employer.

Additionally, high percentages of respondents would leave their jobs if their employers were to become less empathetic. A culture of empathy tends to make employees happier and more engaged, with less risk of burnout.

Do you want to risk losing employees? – source


  1. Growth and higher earnings.
    ROI is an important metric for any business but ROE, or Return on Empathy, may be equally important. Empathy in healthcare is something that industry companies can and should invest in.


A clear link between empathy and earnings – source


You can hire for empathy, train for empathy, and build a culture around empathy. All of this can lead to growth, increased profits, and huge savings.

The HBR empathy study showed the top 10 most empathetic companies “increased in value more than twice as much as the bottom 10 and generated 50% more earnings.”

The opposite of empathy is disengagement, and this can be extremely costly. In fact, disengagement costs the US economy $450-500 billion annually.

With empathy, you don’t lose as much money from employee turnover. You also might not have to invest as much in certain kinds of marketing as your improved reputation and trustworthiness will have patients and customers selling you to everyone they know.

If you have a reputation for lacking empathy, it will hurt you. The Businessolver study found that 42% of consumers would refuse to buy something from a company they perceive to lack empathy.

Perception of empathy is key to engaging with consumers – source



Closing Thoughts

These seven benefits show that empathy in healthcare is not just a soft concept.

It is proven to be something that can boost the overall perception and trustworthiness of the healthcare company while increasing both employee and consumer satisfaction. Patients tend to be more compliant and have better outcomes when their healthcare team is empathetic.

Finally, it just makes good business sense. Empathy in healthcare companies can lead to cost savings and increased growth and profits.

How are you using empathy in healthcare?


Kayla is a writer, marketer, and consultant whose work is often informed by her experiences as a patient. As someone living with MS for over a decade, she finds it particularly meaningful to help healthcare companies improve the patient experience.



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