The Science And Art Of Empathy In Healthcare: Why It Matters

Updated on August 21, 2023

Dr. Nicole Price delves into the intricate world of empathy in healthcare, drawing from the book “Spark the Heart: Engineering Empathy in Your Organization” and various studies. This article highlights the essential role of empathy, not only as an emotional connection but as a scientific factor influencing patient outcomes, a compelling call to action for today’s healthcare professionals.

In the complex world of healthcare, understanding emotions and the ability to empathize with patients is not just a virtue; it’s a necessity. With groundbreaking scientific insights available to us, empathy has emerged as a vital tool in patient care, and understanding how to wield it effectively is essential for healthcare providers.

Empathizing with others is no simple task

When people visit healthcare institutions, it is often because of some kind of pain. Empathy – truly feeling someone else’s pain – is physically real, as shown through studies involving functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Observers witnessing pain in others activate the same emotional pain networks in their brains, indicating a profound connection.

The impact of empathy on health outcomes

What does this connection mean for healthcare workers, and why should they care? The answer lies in research revealing the tangible impact of empathy on patient outcomes.

A 2011 study of 891 diabetic patients treated by 29 family physicians over four years highlights this. Physicians with high empathy scores achieved better results. Fifty-six percent of their patients had good control of A1c levels, versus 40% from less empathetic colleagues. Good cholesterol levels (LDL-C) were better as well – 59% versus 44%. The study concluded that there is a positive relationship between physician empathy and clinical outcomes.

But it doesn’t stop with diabetes and heart health. Helen Riess, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the Empathy and Relational Science Program at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, found that empathetic medical care is associated with numerous benefits, including:

  • Improved patient experiences
  • Better patient compliance with treatment recommendations
  • Enhanced clinical outcomes
  • Higher physician retention
  • A decrease in medical errors and malpractice claims

The thin line between empathy and emotional overwhelm

While the evidence points to the importance of empathy, healthcare professionals must remember that feeling with others requires managing boundaries to prevent empathy fatigue and psychic numbing. Focusing on another person’s feelings, especially when dealing with grief, must be practiced with awareness and care. Ways to practice include:

  • Creating a set boundary. Limit the amount of personal sharing with patients while focusing on their specific concerns and feelings. This allows a person to maintain emotional energy for the next patient and ensures that compassionate care can continue without burning out.
  • Focusing on the client’s feelings and experiences without becoming personally entangled in their grief. This allows a person to avoid taking on the emotional burden. 
  • Developing a practice of active listening. When maintaining a professional demeanor and offering compassionate responses without absorbing the patient’s pain and frustration, a person can maintain clear emotional boundaries.

The importance of self-compassion

Having genuine compassion for others starts with having compassion for yourself. If you’re overloaded and out of balance, it’s impossible to help others find their balance. Self-compassion includes getting quality sleep and taking breaks during the day. For many leaders, self-compassion means letting go of obsessive self-criticism. 

When we lack self-compassion, it is often because we expect perfection from ourselves and others – we are rigid. We overwork ourselves, don’t take breaks, fail to eat right and exercise, numb ourselves with drinking and other substances, and suppress our feelings. It’s no wonder we have zero energy to practice empathy with others. Self-care and a decent amount of radical acceptance is necessary to be empathetic. This foundational idea is critical. 

The future of empathy in healthcare

The science behind empathy is clear, and its effects on patient outcomes cannot be overlooked. Healthcare providers must embrace empathy as an essential skill, blending scientific understanding with emotional intelligence. By showing up authentically and maintaining boundaries, we can create a compassionate healthcare environment that benefits both patients and providers.

With empathy now revealed as a tangible asset, the challenge lies in cultivating and nurturing it in our healthcare practices. It’s not just about understanding; it’s about creating a system that fosters connection and trust. The future of healthcare depends on our ability to spark the heart.

Screenshot 2023 08 21 at 6.20.11 AM
Dr. Nicole Price
CEO at Lively Paradox

Dr. Nicole Price ( is the Forbes Books author of Spark The Heart: Engineering Empathy In Your Organization. A leadership consultant and professional speaker, she also is the CEO of Lively Paradox, a professional coaching business that focuses on practicing empathy in leadership. Originally trained as an engineer, Dr. Price's technical background enhances her objective approach to solving process problems and helping people focus on solutions. Follow Dr. Price on X (formerly Twitter): @DrNicolePrice.