Robot in MetropolisI couldn’t get pregnant because I was missing some critical organs.  It was a very dark period in my life – being faced with a health situation that was out of my control.  My doctor, let’s call her Dr. Nassairia, was very tough and serious.  She didn’t have many warm words of comfort, but at the end of countless appointments, she always patted my knee and smiled into my eyes.  I called it the Nassairia knee pat.  It wasn’t much, but her demonstration of empathy was just enough to keep me going.

Have you ever thought of how your display of empathy affects your patients?  Empathy is essentially two aspects in a conversation.  It marks the ability to perceive or feel another’s experience and then to communicate that perception back to the individual so they feel heard. Studies show that health practitioners who have greater empathy for patients have patients with better control of their diabetes as well as cholesterol levels (1, 2). Did you know that conveying empathy can be as simple as the knee pat and eye contact?  Basic body language can make your patients feel as though you are empathetic to their needs and can impact trust and perhaps even compliance.  If you want to see an immediate improvement in the way you make your patients feel, here are some ideas that convey empathy – even on your worst days when you might not feel empathetic.  Because, let’s face it, we all have bad days.

When you conduct a history and physical, consider rewording your questions to mirror the Kleinman’s Questions to Assess Health Beliefs (3).

  1. What do you call the problem?
  2. What do you think has caused the problem?
  3. Why do you think it started when it did?
  4. What do you think the sickness does? How does it work?
  5. How severe is the sickness? Will it have a long or a short course?
  6. What kind of treatment do you think you/the patient should receive?
  7. What are the chief problems the sickness has caused?
  8. What do you fear most about the sickness?

These yield the same clinical information as your usual questions, but make the patients know that you are really hearing their feelings and can put yourself in their shoes.  Just try one today and see what kind of response you get.

In addition to basic body language and the way you word your questions, you can try putting into play some other empathetic tactics.  For instance, you can rephrase some of your instructions from you statements to I or we statements.  Try this one out: Mr. Davis, you’ve been back three times with sugar levels that are too high.  Can you really work on your diet this month?  A simple rephrase can convey empathy and make a patient feel more engaged.  Mr. Davis.  I am very worried about how many times your sugar has been high and I’m afraid you’re going to have bigger problems soon.  What can we do to help you better follow the diet we talked about last time?  Try one on your own – it may help you in other relationships as well!

The bottom line is that most of your patients need to feel you are engaged with empathy.  It will be good for you both.  What are some other time-neutral ways you convey empathy?  Please share.

Our Guest Blogger this week is Meredith Masel, PhD, MSW. She is at the Oliver Center for Patient Safety & Quality Healthcare.


  1. Del Canale, Stefano, et al. “The relationship between physician empathy and disease complications: an empirical study of primary care physicians and their diabetic patients in Parma, Italy.” Academic Medicine 87.9 (2012): 1243-1249.
  2. Hojat, Mohammadreza, et al. “Physicians’ empathy and clinical outcomes for diabetic patients.” Academic Medicine 86.3 (2011): 359-364.
  3. Kleinman, Arthur, Leon Eisenberg, and Byron Good. “Culture, illness, and care: clinical lessons from anthropologic and cross-cultural research.” Annals of internal Medicine 88.2 (1978): 251-258.

Join us for a real-time discussion about questions raised by this essay on Tuesday from 12:00 p.m. to 12:45 p.m. See Discussion and SL tabs above for details. Link to the virtual meeting room:

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