Clinical Empathy Key to Pharmacist-Patient Interactions


Prior to dispensing a prescription to a patient, it may pay to walk a mile in his or her shoes.

Prior to dispensing a prescription to a patient, it may pay to walk a mile in his or her shoes.

As the health care system moves toward value-based care, the ability to understand a patient’s feelings could be the key to ensuring high-quality interactions. Known as clinical empathy, this involves communicating with patients to understand their perspective on their disease, medication, and overall health.

Ultimately, clinical empathy helps build the patient respect necessary for better health outcomes.

“Until someone gains respect for you, they won’t value what you have to offer them in terms of knowledge,” said Gloria Grice, PharmD, who specializes in patient communication and building patient relationships, in an exclusive interview with Pharmacy Times. “The key to earn the respect of patients is to respect them, which includes their beliefs, perspectives, opinions, and feelings.”

Developing that relationship can mean addressing patients’ emotional responses to therapy, as well as acknowledging their concerns or frustrations.

“It’s really important that pharmacists do not ignore the emotion simply because it can be a little uncomfortable,” Dr. Grice said. “Additionally, we should encourage a patient to expand when they express a feeling by saying things like, ‘tell me more’ or ‘it’s ok to be upset.’”

While ignoring an emotional response may seem more natural, it is a professional pitfall that prevents deeper connection with patients, Dr. Grice said.

Other pitfalls include rushing interactions, which may make patients feel as if they are a burden to the pharmacist, or unintentionally embarrassing patients, if the pharmacist is not accustomed to addressing emotions.

Luckily, empathy and communication are learned skills, so pharmacists can develop them through practice and experience. The St. Louis College of Pharmacy, where Dr. Grice is an associate professor, teaches these skills through its internally developed Patient-Centered Communication Tools. Based on a physician-training model, the tools emphasize relationship-building communication and have empathy at their core.

“It may help to think of the patient in front of you as a family member or friend,” Dr. Grice told Pharmacy Times. “It could be helpful to ask a colleague to offer feedback on how empathetic you were with a patient.”

Despite its importance, empathy is not a stand-alone quality in effective patient communication.

“Communication is much more complicated, and involves a lot more than just empathy,” Dr. Grice said. “It includes confidence, effective questioning, appropriate language, non-verbal demeanor. All of these things—tied with empathy, understanding, and incorporating a patient’s perspective and strong knowledge—will make the encounter with a patient successful.”

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