4 Things Pharmacy Students Should Know About Digital Empathy

Pharmacists who show empathy can build better relationships with their patients, which then leads to better health outcomes. But, how can pharmacists show empathy as health care becomes more digitalized?

Pharmacists who show empathy can build better relationships with their patients, which then leads to better health outcomes. But, how can pharmacists show empathy as health care becomes more digitalized?

Christopher Terry, PharmD, and Jeff Cain, EdD, MS, from the University of Kentucky College of Pharmacy, discussed how technology will affect how pharmacists show empathy in an article published in The American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education.

Here are 4 key takeaways on digital empathy for student pharmacists:

1. Digital channels remove empathetic social filters and emotional signals

Cellphones and social media allow individuals to share their thoughts with others immediately, but responses lack the emotional connection that face-to-face interactions afford.

“These changes in modern technology present challenges to the evolving sociocommunicative aspects of health care and require an understanding of the emerging construct of digital empathy,” the study authors wrote.

Drs. Terry and Cain defined digital empathy as feelings like concern and caring that are expressed through computer-mediated communications.

2. Telemedicine will likely become more popular

In a national survey of health care and information technology professionals, the vast majority said they thought telemedicine would change the health care system in the next 10 years. In addition, around two-thirds said they used telemedicine services, and about half of the those who didn’t use telemedicine currently said they would implement it within the year.

However, telemedicine’s rise in popularity may cause some issues with health care providers’ ability to demonstrate empathy. In one study, patients received care either via computer monitors or through face-to-face consultations, and the investigators found that the “empathy utterances” were less common in the telemedicine consultations.

“This significant finding suggests a small measure of validity to the anecdotal evidence that expression of empathy is lacking in technology-based settings and warrants an examination and discussion of the issues in a public forum, particularly a conversation about how to appropriately address these concerns,” the study authors wrote.

3. Online communications provide anonymity to both parties, which adds another level of distance

Face-to-face interactions add a richness in nonverbal language, while digital channels allow for “dissociative anonymity,” Drs. Terry and Cain pointed out.

This could potentially lead providers to think of patients only as users or avatars, rather than actual human beings. On the flip side, patients may hide behind nonidentifying pseudonyms.

In addition, the study authors pointed out that communication may be delayed between the 2 parties.

4. Schools may want to consider incorporating education on digital empathy

The study authors argued that digital empathy should be included in health profession curricula.

“Because of the growth of computer-mediated communication, the need to make future health care providers aware of digital empathy and teach them how to recognize and avoid harmful online communications is unlikely to recede,” Drs. Terry and Cain said.

Communication skills training through lectures and small group workshops may be able to improve digital empathy skills. The study authors also suggested incorporating self-reflection and reflective writing in curricula.

They cautioned that digital empathy will become a more critical issue as technology advances, so efficient ways of delivering empathy through digital channels should be established now in order to provide adequate care regardless of setting.