doctor holding patients hands“The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” 

That is the simplest definition of the word empathy; a crucial component to any legitimate, beneficial relationship. 

If you wish to form a healthy, lasting union with your spouse -- empathy is required. If you wish to make new friends at school, some level of empathy is required. Building a real bond requires empathy. But empathy exists well beyond just family and friends.

Empathy is also a crucial part of the professional, medical relationship. Sure, it’s not necessary or required, per se, for a doctor or physical therapist to show empathy towards patients. Empathy isn’t needed to recognize physical symptoms. Empathy doesn’t read charts or take blood pressure.

But make no mistake - the best caregivers in the world are empathetic individuals. There is evidence (published in March of 2016 by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons) determining the relationship between empathic caregivers and positive health results. 65 percent of patient satisfaction was attributed to physician empathy, according to the study.

That isn’t to say empathy has a direct impact on the physical body. The ability to understand and share the feelings of another doesn’t directly translate into pain relief.

But when a caregiver, like a physical therapist, approaches the patient as a whole person and not just as a set of symptoms, that builds trust. That trust results in the patient believing the caregiver has his or her best interest in mind, as it should be. Which in turn, directly translates into the patient being more likely to follow through with the treatment plan and maintain a better outlook on his or her health. That’s how empathy can lead to positive results.

What does this empathy between the caregiver and the patient look like?

Understanding the thought patterns of the patient that may have led him or her to become injured in the first place. Asking pertinent questions about the patient’s home life or daily habits which may have led to exacerbation of the injury. Believing that the patient is telling the truth about pain levels. Attempting to connect with the patient at the human level by showing simple signs of compassion and decency.

These, and so many others, are all ways to aid a patient’s healing process -- by showing empathy. A therapist with the proper credentials and expertise is good, but a therapist with those things plus a serving of empathic communication is ideal. It’s proven to increase quality outcomes, and simply stated, it’s the way it should be.