Is empathy an innate trait or a learnable skill?
Following my recent post about cognitive and affective empathy, a friend sent me a CBC story about oncologists who participated in a study that tested a computer-based empathy and communication skills training program. The doctors in the study were recorded during interactions with their patients, and received one month of feedback and training on how to recognize and improve their response to patients' distress signals. They were taught how to present information about prognosis empathetically, and how to identify opportunities to allow patients to talk about their feelings. The doctors were subsequently measured on "emotion-handling skills" (i.e., naming, understanding, respecting, supporting, and exploring emotions, rather than changing the topic, joking, denying the emotion, or ending the conversation). Patients' perceptions of their physician were also measured.
Results: At the end of the study, the empathy-trained doctors responded empathetically to their patients twice as often as did a control group of doctors who merely attended a lecture on communication skills. More importantly, patients whose doctors were in the training group reported greater trust in their doctor and greater perceived empathy from their doctor, and were more likely to report that they felt understood as "a whole person."
I thought this was pretty great--what's better than doctors who are willing to improve their bedside manner and patients who benefit? Not everyone agreed. In fact, several commenters on the CBC story seemed quite offended by the idea of empathy as a teachable skill and argued that in-born empathy is a required trait for good doctors.
This seems misguided. Insisting on strong innate empathy as a prerequisite for access to healthcare professions would exclude many intelligent and intuitive people who have excellent diagnostic and technical skills and who want to help others. I'm not suggesting that doctors don't need empathy, but who cares whether or not it's innate? It's hardly uncommon for professionals to take continuing education courses to brush up on skills and to fill gaps in their training.
Another commenter wondered whether the doctors in the study really learned empathy or whether they simply learned empathy behaviour. For the purposes of the doctor-patient relationship, I'm not sure there's a difference. The oncology patients in the study knew that their doctors were participating in a program to improve their empathy skills, but they still reported that they felt better understood and listened to--that is, they felt that their doctors were empathetic. That the doctors learned empathy from a computer didn't bother the patients and didn't limit the positive impact of the program on the doctor-patient relationship.
Any intervention that improves healthcare professionals' clinical skills and makes patients feel better supported should be applauded and pursued. I would love it if my doctor took an empathy course. Likewise, I would love it if I had a therapist who participated in a skills training program to improve her ability to identify and respond appropriately to my distress signals. Wouldn't you?