Compassion is a key quality that every physician should demonstrate — and when they don't, patients notice. Research from Massachusetts General Hospital found that patients who have a good relationship with their doctor can benefit as much as they would from taking a daily aspirin to prevent a cardiac event.

What's more, research from the Loyola University Health System found that residents who scored high on emotional intelligence and empathy also demonstrated better impulse control and more social responsibility — making for safer and more humane care as a whole. It's key to know how specific expressions of empathy have the most positive effect on your patients as they interact with your organization's physicians.

Consider these significant research findings:

Compassion may cure the common cold.

A study from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health found that patients who saw a physician for treatment of a respiratory virus and felt that doctor was kind and concerned about their symptoms reported that their cold or flu symptoms were resolved a full day earlier than patients who felt their doctor showed no caring about their symptoms.

Patients appreciate individual connection.

A Northwestern University study found that doctors who held direct, friendly eye contact with their patients were instantly seen as likable and trustworthy. Patients in the study also responded favorably when a doctor wasn't glued to his/her computer during a visit — consulting a paper chart while talking to a patient made a doctor seem more caring, as it allows more face-to-face conversation.

Another favorable impression: when a doctor doesn't obviously rush through an office visit in minutes, patients feel they matter and trust the doctor more.

An excellent way to emphasize the importance of compassion in practice is to increase empathy training for your organization's doctors. Skill areas to focus on include:

  • Learning basic personal details about each patient.
  • Being supportive and considerate of a patient's medical concerns and/or fears.
  • Being clear and patient when explaining complex medical information.
  • Putting yourself in your patient's shoes.
  • Listening to patient complaints fairly and without defensiveness or anger.
  • Curbing arrogant or rude behavior, like checking one's phone while breaking difficult news.

Residents can take empathy classes as part of their curriculum; veteran doctors can take refresher courses through seminars you make available at your hospital or through approved video programs, which are low-cost and highly effective.

You can measure your physicians' progress by administering empathy testing before and after training, and then periodically afterward to make sure they are retaining and using the information they've learned.

The bottom line: empathy is a natural emotion we all should cultivate in ourselves — but it can also be approached as a skill to be learned and to constantly improve on. The more comfortable your doctors become expressing kindness, the more your patients will appreciate it!