By empathizing with patients and creating an environment where patients feel comfortable and open to sharing, pharmacists can increase compliance and adherence.
Pharmacists are the third most trusted health care professionals in the United States with their accessibility and knowledge.1 In the past 2 to 3 years, pharmacists’ honesty and ethical scores on a Gallup survey decreased to their lowest rating in 4 decades.1 The honesty and ethical scores for nurses and doctors have also declined over the past 2 to 3 years during the COVID-19 pandemic.1
The COVID-19 pandemic brought an influx of patients to different health care settings, where pharmacists and other frontline health care workers encountered challenges health care teams had not previously faced. The continuous daily fatigue from triaging patients and re-allocating resources affected the empathy of pharmacists as they were continuously exposed to more emotionally draining situations with each encounter.
The COVID-19 pandemic also introduced the COVID-19 vaccines which aided in increased patient awareness of health and preventative care. Patients of all health statuses visited community pharmacies for both consultations and vaccines during this time, increasing the volume of patients seen in the community setting.
This influx of patients was met with an increasing pace of pharmacy workflow, with pharmacists trying to work as efficiently as possible to meet the demands of their schedule. However, this efficiency has decreased the time spent with patients and caused patients to perceive the increased focus on work efficiency as a lack of empathy towards them.
This perception patients have on the empathy given from pharmacists and other health care workers can affect their compliance and adherence to recommendations provided.2 There is a need for an increased awareness of empathy both in training during pharmacy school and in practice during patient interactions.
Empathy and Improved Patient Outcomes
Empathy during patient interactions may lead to increased trust and cooperativeness, therefore improving patient outcomes. Australia’s Home Medicines Review service provides medication management for patients, allowing opportunities for pharmacists to counsel on medication, assess adherence, and provide individualized recommendations to both the patient and the patient’s provider based on their disease states and care plan.3
A study was conducted to assess the impact of patients’ perception of pharmacists’ listening skills and attentiveness on the patients’ willingness to continue their service with the Home Medicines Review.2 Patient who had experienced the service within the last 6 months completed questionnaires.
Results showed a statistically significant association between pharmacists scoring high on the “listening” scale, and an increase in their “willingness” to re-use the service. Patients who ranked their pharmacist interactions high in listening skills also believed the Home Medicines Review patient interviews were beneficial.
When pharmacists are attentive listeners and display empathy, patient compliance and adherence to the pharmacist’s and provider’s recommendations increases.
Incorporation into Pharmacy Curriculum
Empathy is a topic and skill that is often neglected in pharmacy school curriculums and should be taught early on and emphasized throughout the program to allow pharmacy students time to master this skill and improve patients’ perceptions of pharmacists during patient interviews.
Nearly all pharmacy programs across the nation have a counseling or skills lab component to their curriculum. This is where empathy should be emphasized within the curriculum and simulation.
As pharmacy students learn about different disease states, pharmacotherapy, and patient counseling, they should be reminded to view patients as an individual, rather than as their disease states.
A prospective cohort study at an institution offering a 4-year PharmD program assessed the effect of application-based simulations and didactic learning during a course enhancement on pharmacy students’ empathy.4
Investigators used a pre- and post-survey and the Jefferson Scale of Empathy for Health Profession Students (JSE-HPS) to assess the empathy of the students. The results indicated that there was a significant increase in empathy after the implementation of skills-based training and didactic learning regarding empathy in the clinical assessment course.
Empathy techniques should also be introduced to pharmacy students in order to improve the patients’ perceptions of pharmacists during patient interviews. A systemic review looked at behaviors that improved patients’ perceptions of physicians’ empathy and compassion, finding that sitting opposed to standing, non-verbal communication of caring, verbal statements of acknowledgement, and responding to opportunities for compassion were all effective.5
These are some behavioral skills pharmacy students should be introduced to and mastered in their curriculum to better prepare them for patient interactions in actual practice.
The PATH to EmPATHy
In practice, pharmacists can implement the following techniques to improve patients’ perception of empathy during visits:
At the end of the day, patients are not just numbers nor a chart of notes to be documented. By empathizing with patients and creating an environment where patients feel comfortable and open to sharing, pharmacists can increase compliance and adherence. Presenting oneself with attentiveness, asking open-ended questions, tailoring the interaction to the patient, and being here to help are all strategies that should be taught in training and applied in practice to work towards improving patient outcomes.