Physician Health

Empathy: A critical ally in battling physician burnout

Sara Berg, MS , News Editor

With almost half of doctors nationally experiencing burnout, one medical group turned to physician empathy training. Learn how empathy reduces burnout. 

Physician burnout demands urgent action

The AMA is leading the national effort to solve the growing physician burnout crisis. We're working to eliminate the dysfunction in health care by removing the obstacles and burdens that interfere with patient care.

At the Northeast’s largest nonprofit independent medical group, 48 percent of physicians reported burnout. That high rate of physician burnout—fed by the competing demands of contemporary medical practice—can make cultivating a healthy sense of empathy a struggle. That, in turn, can negatively affect professional satisfaction, which is why this medical group’s journey to reducing burnout began with physician empathy training.  

While physicians are commonly viewed as being empathetic, their behavior might come across differently to the patient in the room. The physician might seem rushed, distracted or trying to squeeze too much into one visit while simultaneously entering notes on the computer, said Steven Strongwater, MD, president and CEO of Atrius Health. The Boston-area medical group’s 1,300 clinicians deliver care to more than 720,000 patients. 

Committed to making physician burnout a thing of the past, the AMA has studied, and is currently addressing issues causing and fueling physician burnout—including time constraints, technology and regulations—to better understand the challenges physicians face. 

The AMA Ed Hub™—your center for personalized learning from sources you trust—offers CME on professional well-being using the STEPS Forward™ open-access platform that offers innovative strategies that allow physicians and their staff to thrive in the new health care environment. These toolkits can help you prevent physician burnout, create the organizational foundation for joy in medicine, create a strong team culture and improve practice efficiency.  

Sixty-one percent of employees and 76 percent of CEOs say it is important for organizations to exhibit empathy, Dr. Strongwater said at the International Conference on Physician Health in Toronto. The event was co-sponsored by the AMA, Canadian Medical Association and British Medical Association. 

“It turns out this is a really good business investment,” he said. “It is the soft stuff, but people basically said, ‘I didn’t think I needed this, but it turned out to be really helpful.’” 

While there is no “silver bullet,” Dr. Strongwater added that it is important to keep working toward improving physician satisfaction. When physicians show empathy, it can forge deeper connections with patients, leading to greater professional satisfaction and joy in work for physicians. 

Here is what Atrius Health learned from providing physician empathy training for doctors and other staff members.  

“How do you convey that you are really in the moment with your patient?” asked Dr. Strongwater. “This is not for the faint of heart.” 

It took many hours of prep time to design the class, create written materials, curriculum, videos and references for staff and physician empathy training, as well as the post work, data processing, data analysis and reporting. Internally, the classes are called “forums” instead of “training.” 

With preparation complete, 600 classroom-hours were devoted to reaching more than 4,000 staff members, including physicians. Each interdisciplinary session lasted two hours, teaching skills such as how to reliably convey empathy to patients and families.  

“We had docs in the room with registration staff and medical assistants they had never seen before,” Dr. Strongwater said. “We created a dialogue to talk amongst ourselves and to create that sense of a team.”   

The secondary goal was to create and encourage empathy toward one another during daily work. One lesson was to convey empathy in less than 10 seconds by remembering the mantra of “heart, head, heart.”  

“You encounter someone and you say something from your heart, ‘It must be difficult not to be feeling well. Thank you for coming in,’” said Dr. Strongwater. “Then you do something that is important or more serious, ‘What brings you into the office? Do you have a problem today?’”  

At the end of their care, physicians should say something from the heart again, such as, “I hope that you feel better soon,” or “It was great that you are working so hard on that goal.” Physicians are also encouraged to use this approach when writing their emails.  

Empathy and patient adherence are connected, said Dr. Strongwater. “Patients are more likely to follow your advice when they know you care about them.”  

“We definitely had an impact on moving the needle, so empathy training does work,” he said. “Once you go through it, even though it is soft—it is impactful.”