Every job requires a specific set of skills. There are also many personal attributes or competencies that influence how you perform your job. These include creativity, problem-solving skills, organization, flexibility, punctuality, and empathy.
Empathy in healthcare professionals can effectively increase communication and comprehension of the needs of the patient during treatment. Empathy may be considered an essential characteristic for occupational therapists, nurses, doctors, and other healthcare providers as it provides many benefits for patient interaction.
What Is Empathy?
Empathy and sympathy are terms that are regularly used interchangeably but do have distinct meanings. Sympathy is a feeling of care or concern for another person, and the ability to imagine or understand their experience. Empathy, however, is the ability to connect with, share, and mirror the emotions of another person.
Empathy, a type of mirroring, has been linked with mirror neuron activity. Studies show that mirror neurons — reactive neurons in the motor cortex that fire to perform an action or reaction — also fire at a lower level if a subject observes the actions or reactions of another. These findings show that observation of another person’s emotional signals, facial expressions, and other forms of body language may reflect in the mirror neurons of the observer.
Signs of the development of empathy may occur as early as 18 to 72 hours following birth, when babies engage in a form of reactive crying. Studies show that infants exposed to the sound of another infant crying display distress reactions. Empathy is further developed through childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.
Why Is Empathy Important in Healthcare?
An important aspect of empathy is the way it can help people connect with others. A study on the science of empathy shows that emotional empathy most easily occurs between individuals with similar features, people who have suffered in a similar way, or those who may share a common goal.
Healthcare providers interact with and serve diverse groups of people. It is important for healthcare providers to practice cognitive empathy to ensure that their healthcare services are not affected by conscious or unconscious biases. Cognitive empathy, or “empathetic accuracy,” refers to the ability to perceive and understand the emotions of another. Healthcare providers who use the skill of cognitive empathy demonstrate enhanced perspective-taking, which allows the value of the welfare of someone unfamiliar to override their personal biases.
Empathy and self-compassion are also important to culture in the infrastructure of healthcare providers and their respective institutions. Culturing empathy in the healthcare system increases the value of the workforce and helps to construct equal rights and protections for all. This may reduce attrition, systemic burnout, and loss of trust in a healthcare system.
There are many advantages and disadvantages to healthcare positions that are related to empathy. While maintaining empathy in your work, it is also important to acknowledge the impact of the emotional challenge of providing care. Healthcare workers who are able to tend to their own self-care are more likely to remain empathetic towards others, especially during times of intense overload, feelings of being overwhelmed, or emotional burnout.
Benefits of Empathy in Healthcare
The ability of healthcare providers to use empathy helps them employ best practices for patient-centered communication. Empathetic providers are able to communicate effectively with patients while fostering relationships, gathering and providing information, making collaborative decisions, responding to patient emotions, and encouraging treatment-related behaviors.
Empathy was once considered an inborn trait. However, research shows that empathy and self-empathy can be mutable and taught to healthcare providers through wellness and development programs, as well as training programs such as the health workforce initiative. Empathetic medical care provides many benefits when it comes to patient satisfaction and compliance, including:
- Improved patient experiences and perception of provider expertise;
- Patient adherence to treatments;
- Increased interpersonal trust;
- Better clinical outcomes;
- Fewer medical errors and malpractice claims;
- Higher physician retention.
Healthcare Jobs for Empaths
The healthcare industry is full of careers that are suited to empathetic people while offering many opportunities and economic benefits. Overall, healthcare occupations and employment are expected to grow 15% from 2019 to 2029, adding about 2.4 million new jobs. A few healthcare jobs that are well suited for empaths include:
- Doctors and physicians;
- Family and nurse practitioners;
- Registered nurses, licensed practical nurses, and nursing assistants;
- Psychologists and therapists;
- Occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants;
- Physical therapists and physical therapy assistants.
Those with high levels of empathy who are interested in pursuing a career in the field of healthcare should consider the emotional and economic impacts of working in the industry. Working in healthcare as an empath requires the ability to connect with patients to help them even as you set boundaries to avoid emotional overload.
Healthcare jobs may also require extensive and expensive schooling. For example, if you wish to become an occupational therapist or occupational therapy assistant, you may wish to explore the school and program options available to you and decide what is the best choice. You should also look for scholarship and grant programs that can help you get the education you need to best use your empathic abilities in the healthcare industry.
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