How to Communicate Empathetically With Your Patients

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As Leonard Calabrese, DO, explained in his previous video, empathic communication is key in the clinical setting. In this video—with the help of a simple mnemonic device using the word "EMPATHY"—Dr Calabrese discusses how you can increase and refine the empathetic communication skills you use with patients in your practice.

Additional Resources:

1. Calabrese L. In the Rheum: the science of empathy in rheumatology: why we should care. Talk presented at: ACR Convergence 2020; November 9, 2020; Virtual.

2. Riess H, Neporent L. The Empathy Effect: Seven Neuroscience-Based Keys for Transforming the Way We Live, Love, Work, and Connect Across Differences. Sounds True; 2018.

Leonard Calabrese, DO, is a professor of medicine at the Cleveland Clinic where he also serves as the director of the RJ Fasenmyer Center for Clinical Immunology.


Leonard Calabrese: You are most likely to be empathic when you are well. Self‑care is critical. If the provider is stressed out, and distracted, and not mindful, empathy is a very tough road to get down.

The other part of this skill set is honing your empathic communications. It’s just like the skill of doing a physical exam. We have a mnemonic that we use. This was developed by Helen Riess, the empathy researcher and psychiatrist from Harvard.

It says, first, the “E” is look for eye contact. Look at the patient’s eyes and read, because we can’t hide what is in our eyes. Are we teary? Are we tense? Are we joyful? 

Secondly, we look for muscles of facial expression to get an overall read. Is this patient afraid? Is this patient sad? Is this patient angry? 

“P” is posture. Posture is an open posture. We’re sitting around and not looking at the patient and looking at our EMR having an openness that will often open up this ability to communicate.

“A” is for affect. To read that patient’s affect that day is just as important as to read their joint exam and the muscle tender points, etc. 

“T” is for tone of voice. We want to be able to communicate in people that they don’t feel threatened. There’s no microaggressions. Very important aspect of this.

“H” is for hearing the whole person. They may come in because they have arthritis in their finger, which may not seem like a big deal to you, until you know that this patient is the organist at the church. They no longer have facility to do the thing that they most love. Chief complaint vs chief concern.

Then lastly, your response. Getting people to understand that you are with them. If nothing else, validating them. I always say to my patients, [laughs] “I don’t care what’s going on today, but I know that your symptoms are real. They’re not in your head, and they’re not your fault. Let’s go on from here.” Just an example of some emphatic communication skill training.

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