This year, June 9 is host to World Empathy Day; on this day, the promotion of empathetic practices and attitudes is encouraged, and because empathy is a skill that can be taught, days like this that highlight the importance of learning how to be more empathetic hold significant value.
In the healthcare industry, empathy is needed now more than ever. As technology continues to advance with the development of telehealth and artificial intelligence, medical professionals must utilize the data at their fingertips and actively practice empathy when engaging with their patients.
Heightening Digital Empathy in Professionals
Traditionally, empathy is considered to be a soft skill, useful and necessary for interacting with other individuals in a personal and professional capacity. With the expansion of technology and online communities, digital empathy has emerged as a connected but separate skill.
The Internet, for some, presents an opportunity to engage in negative, aggressive, and even toxic behaviors through the online disinhibition effect; it is easy to behave differently online than one might behave in everyday life. The nature of digital communication is that it is inherently limiting, especially when conversations are confined to written exchanges, because of the anonymity that often accompanies interactions as well as the lack of physical indicators of emotion (namely facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language) which often convey more emotion and empathy than words alone.
Teaching healthcare professionals how to enhance their digital empathy skills is becoming more essential as the world evolves to embrace more technology. Recommended methods of improving digital empathy include strengthening general communication skills, practicing self-reflection, and integrating mindfulness practices into daily routines.
Empathetic Development of Healthcare Tools
While some individuals may assume that the primary function of digital healthcare tools is to provide efficiency and expediency alone, that is simply not the case. Allowing patients to access their medical history, consult remotely with medical professionals, and perform other digital tasks pertaining to their health is certainly a priority, but when developing such tools, it is imperative for technicians, engineers, and designers to adopt an empathetic approach.
One problem with existing healthcare tools is inconsistent usage. Though the tools are developed and released for the sake of patients, if they do not regularly utilize the tools, the benefits are reduced. Trying to understand how to engage patients more and encourage consistent usage while promoting connectivity through digital tools are all part of the empathetic development process necessary in order to most effectively utilize technology to enhance the patient experience.
Various tools promote clearer communication between healthcare professionals and their patients using both live video chats as well as artificial intelligence which can help professionals identify patterns in interactions. Tools like the HealthLoop platform also utilize automation with patient messages that are personalized based on their concerns and conditions; in general, personalized messages that have a friendly, congenial tone are better received by patients, and these messages also tend to improve health literacy among patients, as well. Other tools help professionals more accurately empathize with patient conditions; in particular, MS from the Inside Out uses virtual reality to allow medical personnel to experience some of the symptoms of MS firsthand, thereby allowing individuals to better understand the impact MS can have on a patient’s life. By experiencing the symptoms a patient might describe, medical professionals will be more prepared to empathize with the patient and prescribe the most appropriate treatments.
Understanding patient desires and needs, checking the accuracy of this understanding, and acting on these confirmations to integrate features, programs, and predictions that allow patients to satisfy their needs with digital healthcare tools is key.
Empathy in Digital Communication
A common issue with digital communication is a decided lack of empathy; whether this absence is real or simply perceived may vary, even in personal conversations, and when it comes to medical conversations, it is important for professionals to understand the importance of empathy in their work, especially from a distance.
When medical professionals demonstrate empathy with patients, it is more common for said patients to report a higher degree of satisfaction with their doctors; when patients feel that their doctors are genuinely trying to understand their concerns and are actively working to alleviate them, patients are more inclined to be happy with their care.
On a digital front, it is easy for written communication to be misinterpreted, and patients undoubtedly feel more tension when connecting to medical professionals through a screen rather than in person. There are plenty of benefits to telehealth (including reduced commute times for patients and more opportunities for patients to connect with their care providers), but there are barriers to satisfactory treatment, as well. Professionals who utilize digital tools to communicate with patients should understand how to conduct themselves on video calls (including looking at the individual rather than their screen, as eye contact can make a significant different in the perception of empathy) and how best to compose written messages to avoid conflicting tones and include clear examples of empathy.
In fields like technology and healthcare, empathy operates as a driving force for innovation and growth. The intersection of the two fields demands that empathy is at the forefront of development so as to promote effective communication through digital means as well as additional patient-driven advancements.