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Giving Empathy a Place in Your Child’s Care

February 17, 2023

Family Connections with Pediatrics blog

In times of crisis, we often turn to the people who can understand what we are feeling. When a child is very sick in the hospital, families often rely on their child’s doctors for support.

What makes a family feel supported by their child’s doctors? Important to the doctor-family relationship are good communication and the doctor’s ability to show compassion or empathy. Early releasing this month in Pediatrics is the article, “Empathy Expression in Pediatric Care Conferences,” which looks at how often doctors show empathy and relate to a family’s emotions (10.1542/peds.2022-059447).

What were the goals of the study?

This study looked at doctor expressions of empathy (the effort to feel what someone else feels) during care conferences (a care conference is when key members of the care team, including family, all meet at the same time). It also looked at whether those expressions changed when an interpreter was used during a care conference. The authors guessed that when doctors express empathy, families were more likely to share more. They also guessed that doctors expressed less empathy in care conferences that used language interpretation.

The researchers wanted to find out:

  1. How many opportunities did doctors have to express empathy?
  2. Did they use those opportunities to express empathy?
  3. How many opportunities were missed?
  4. What was the family reaction to statements of empathy?

What were the findings?

The findings of the study were:

  1. A doctor’s ability to express empathy does not change when a language other than English is used.
  2. Doctors often miss opportunities to express empathy.
  3. Doctors often bury their expressions of empathy by following it with medical talk. When doctors do this, the family responds as if no empathy had been expressed at all.

Why is this important?

The article says when a doctor expresses empathy, patients and families feel they are getting higher quality care and better health outcomes. Families share more about their feelings and goals, and the doctor-family relationship is improved. This study shows that when doctors miss opportunities to empathize, this discourages deeper discussion. When a doctor expresses emotion and creates space for the family to respond, families are more likely to share more about their emotion(s), show gratitude, and express agreement.

How can these findings be used?

  1. As a family member, you can ask your child’s doctors to give you more time to process your emotions and allow time for you to respond. Asking for time is not “being difficult.” It is being a good member of your child’s care team.
  2. As a doctor, being able to relate to a patient’s and family’s emotions is critical to good patient- and family-centered care. You can get better at showing empathy with practice, but also by being a good listener. Allowing families space to respond to statements of empathy will improve communication.

In a healthcare system that is full of fragmentation, distractions, and burnout, taking time to listen, express empathy, and feel during a tough time is key to communication, improved relationships, and overall care of the patient.

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