5 Ways Pharmacists Can Show Empathy

Empathy is neither sympathy nor compassion, according to John L. Coulehan, MD, MPH, FACP, and Marian R. Block, MD, ABFP, in their book The Medical Interview.

Empathy is neither sympathy nor compassion, according to John L. Coulehan, MD, MPH, FACP, and Marian R. Block, MD, ABFP, in their book The Medical Interview.

It is also not feeling sorry for a patient.

“In medical interviewing, being empathic means listening to the total communication—words, feelings, and gestures—and letting the patient know that you are really hearing what he or she is saying,” the authors wrote.

Empathy can create better relationships with patients and lead to better therapeutic outcomes.

Here are 5 ways pharmacists can show empathy toward patients:

1. Show respect to receive respect.

Gloria Grice, PharmD, an associate professor at St. Louis College of Pharmacy, previously told Pharmacy Times that the key is respecting patients’ beliefs, perspectives, opinions, and feelings.

Showing respect for patients can bolster their respect for pharmacists in return.

“Until someone gains respect for you, they won’t value what you have to offer them in terms of knowledge,” said Dr. Grice, who specializes in patient communication and building patient relationships.

According to Drs. Coulehan and Block, respect is 1 of the 3 most important therapeutic core qualities in addition to empathy and genuineness. Demonstrating these 3 traits can improve health care professionals’ ability to obtain accurate information from the patient and lead to better therapeutic relationships.

Some ways to show respect include introducing yourself, explaining your role, measuring the patient’s comfort before getting started (“Is now a good time for you?”), and letting patients know they have been heard (“Let me see if I have the story straight”), according to Drs. Coulehan and Block.

2. Encourage patients to express themselves.

Using phrases like “Tell me more” or “It’s okay to be upset” can be helpful for better understanding a patient’s condition and also develop a pharmacist-patient relationship.

Giving patients encouragement can also make them feel more comfortable talking about their condition or asking questions.

“It’s really important that pharmacists do not ignore the emotion simply because it can be a little uncomfortable,” Dr. Grice told Pharmacy Times.

Pharmacists can also make an effort not to rush through the interaction or unintentionally embarrass the patient, which may require a more private space to converse.

3. Put yourself in the patient’s shoes.

A 2008 study published in the American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education examined students’ empathy during an advanced pharmacy practice experience at 2 primary care clinics. Students acted as patients with several chronic diseases who faced economic, cultural, or communication challenges.

For the 10-day assignment, students wrote daily journal entries and a reflection paper. They also completed the Jefferson Scale of Physician Empathy (JSPE) before and after the experience.

After the assignment, the students had improved JSPE scores, and their journal entries and papers provided evidence of increased empathy. Students reported greater appreciation of the difficulty of adherence and treatment regimens, more empathy for patients facing medical and psychosocial challenges, and a better ability to apply the lessons they learned in pharmacy school to patients in real life.

In addition to putting themselves in their patients’ shoes, pharmacists can try to imagine their patients as friends or family members. They can also ask colleagues for feedback on their empathy skills.

4. Recognize and address patients’ fears.

Pharmacists are often the first health care professionals that patients approach. As patients start to describe their symptoms, pharmacists can show empathy and listen carefully to their fears, which may cloud how patients share those symptoms.

Drs. Coulehan and Block gave the example of a patient with abdominal pain who feels afraid that he might have stomach cancer because someone in his family died of it. These fears may cause the patient to magnify or minimize the symptom in order to either ensure that a cancer diagnosis is considered or be reassured that it is not cancer.

“If the interviewer acknowledges the fear, it is easier to get an accurate idea about what is really going on,” the authors wrote.

5. Use interchangeable and additive responses.

Interchangeable responses are restatements of the patient’s words, which can show understanding. Pharmacists can use both mirrors and paraphrases to do this.

For example, if a patient is worried about a side effect, the pharmacist can respond, “It’s common to worry about [x].” If the patient says, “I feel really terrible,” and a health care professional responds, “You feel really terrible?” then the patient may feel more understood and be more willing to elaborate.

Additive responses have 2 components: comprehension and an educated guess about what else might worry the patient.

Drs. Coulehan and Block gave the example of a patient who says, “Most days, my arthritis is so bad the swelling and pain are just too much.” An additive response might be: “It sounds as though the pain is so bad that you think that things won’t get much better.”

This gives the patient the opportunity to either give confirmation or correct the health care professional—both of which will provide a better picture of what the patient is going through.