Sometimes small things make the biggest difference. One place this applies is in the doctor’s office. New research published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) finds that a few simple gestures of empathy in the doctor’s office greatly impact the outcome of treatment. It’s not that empathy directly impacts physical health. Rather, patients who are treated with empathy are more motivated to follow through with their treatment plan and feel more satisfied with the care they’ve received. Though medical doctors specialize in treating the body, how they approach the patient as a whole has a pronounced impact.
If empathy makes such a difference in physical medicine, imagine its importance in the context of therapy and counseling. A qualified psychotherapist will have the necessary educational and licensing credentials, but effective, sincere and client-centered therapy involves more than knowledge and experience. It involves sincere empathy and compassion on a very human level. We know that compassion is one of the earliest social traits that pre-humans evolved to possess. Compassion and empathy are closely related, and both play large roles in our cultural development, family bonds, and relationships.
“Relationship” is the key word here, and it’s an accurate description of how patients or clients should be able to feel when they meet with a health care professional—both therapists and physicians included. Empathy is an essential component of forming a true human relationship: at the very least, we must recognize and feel for what the other person is going through. In a doctor’s office, this mean that the doctor doesn’t just recognize physical pain or discomfort in its physiological sense, but also in how it impacts that person’s day-to-day life. In therapy, it means recognizing that people are complex, vulnerable and valuable, and that they’re doing the best they know how. Empathy itself doesn’t solve emotional puzzles or cure physical ills, but it’s an essential ingredient in positive, holistic relationships between individuals and care providers of any kind.
© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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