A frequently played radio commercial in these parts describes an unfortunate woman receiving the news that she has cancer. Her physician flatly delivers the diagnosis, turns and walks away.

In the world of advertising, extremes are easy. The uncaring physician, the unreasonable patient, the overbearing salesperson. They’re easy to spot because they are, thankfully, the exception. While ophthalmologists may rarely have to deliver such a dire diagnosis as cancer, AMD, glaucoma and other ocular diseases are certainly life-changing if not life-threatening conditions. Thankfully, they too are not everyday diagnoses. 
Still, it’s likely that every day most physicians will encounter far less obvious opportunities to engage in what may be an under-appreciated clinical skill: empathy.

Empathy is more than sympathy, according to Dr. Robert Buckman, of the University of Toronto, who with two colleagues recently published an article proposing that empathy is an essential clinical skill that can be taught and improved.1 While sympathy involves the sharing of emotions between an observer and a sufferer, empathy is “an accurate understanding of the experience of the sufferer leading to an attuned response from the observer.”

There may be more to empathy than simply doing the right thing. Clinical empathy, they assert, is “an essential element of quality care, and is associated with improved patient satisfaction and adherence to treatment, as well as fewer malpractice complaints.”  There is even evidence that empathy activates reward centers in your own brain, suggesting that both donor and recipient may benefit from altruistic behaviors.

Such appreciation of the role of empathy is, unfortunately, well out ahead of the realities of medical education. Medical students and residents are still rarely exposed to formal training on the topic, practicing physicians, even less so. The good news is that validated, reliable training methods are being developed—and they don’t take long to learn.

The single biggest factor in whether you’re a successful physician may be the attitude of your patients as they walk out your door. The influences on that attitude are almost too numerous to count, and some are simply beyond your control. But the way you handle negative or stressful encounters is well within your control, and no longer has to depend strictly on your intuition.

Even when your encounter with the patient doesn’t involve delivering bad news, your patients may be presenting you with opportunities to build a better relationship.