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Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and vicariously experience the feelings of another person. It’s a skill that allows you to step into the shoes of patients and fully recognize their needs. In the field of healthcare, your ability to employ empathy can mean life or death for patients.

While there is a limit to how much empathy a nurse can provide — getting too close can affect your ability to think critically and stay level-headed, after all — empathy is a powerful tool that helps nurses effectively do their jobs. Limiting yourself to sympathy only allows you to assess a patient’s needs from your perspective, which may be clouded with subconscious biases. On the other hand, employing empathy at the right times can help you achieve better health outcomes and reinforce patient cooperation with your treatment plans.

Nurses — especially those who serve diverse populations — must increasingly practice empathy to continuously improve their care. We’ll explore four ways you can incorporate more empathy into your practice and the benefits of doing so.

Increase Your Cultural Sensitivity With Formal Training

When you form authentic connections with your patients, they’re far more likely to listen to your recommendations, which allows their treatment plans to take effect. When clinicians are professionally trained communicators, patient adherence can increase by 12%.

However, as our world grows more diverse, good communication is no longer just about being good with words. Nurses must be empathetic, culturally sensitive communicators who can lead diverse peers and connect with diverse patients.

To actively boost your cultural sensitivity, consider getting professional cross-cultural awareness training. Training and certificates are offered by colleges like Central Washington University, professional organizations, and more. Take your learnings a step further by considering how cultural differences can impact medical opinions — for example, by recognizing that some religions disallow blood transfusions.

As you graduate from these programs — and even while you’re in the learning process — find ways to implement your new insights into your work. Then, get feedback from your patients, as well as any coworkers who witness your interactions. As an example, you can practice educating your patients or identifying effective alternatives when they disagree with your ideal treatment plan, rather than pushing your opinion. Post-appointment, you can follow up with your patients to get their satisfaction rating.

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Global communication courses can also help you overcome language barriers and identify universal gestures that help you communicate with patients. However, it’s important not to forget to read between the lines. To uplevel your empathy, carefully observe your patients for nonverbal signs of discomfort or satisfaction.

Practice Your Empathetic Listening Skills With Professionals

The absence of empathy in nursing has led to disastrous medical outcomes over the years, especially for Black women. Fatalities are up to four times more common for African American mothers than for white women. Additionally, Black women often receive prenatal care much later in their pregnancies.

While these issues can be related to several factors — from subconscious biases to limited access to family planning tools — these health disparities all point to a need for increased empathy. Nurses, especially those working with historically underserved populations, must do their part in reducing patient mortality rates by practicing their empathetic listening skills to improve patient outcomes.

Work with a mentor in the nursing field who can help you practice your empathic listening skills on a regular basis. Specific listening skills you can work on include:

  • Asking open-ended questions
  • Listening carefully for what your patients are experiencing (and what details they’re omitting
  • Restating patients’ statements or feelings to get clarification and show you’re listening
  • Using your body language (like eye contact and open arms) to encourage patients to let down their walls
  • Avoiding assumptions

Seasoned nurses can give you feedback on how you’re responding to your patients in difficult situations. Additionally, you can request that they help you build a list of open-ended questions to ask your patients. Mentorship programs may be available at your workplace, although you can always get matched with a mentor through the American Nurses Association or by reaching out to a senior you trust.

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Recognizing Symptoms Aren’t Black and White

Diverse individuals don’t always experience medical conditions in the same way. Women are 20% more likely than men to develop heart failure or die within five years of a severe heart attack. This is in part due to disparities in access to diagnoses and frequency of care by cardiovascular care specialists in hospitals. Poor female patient outcomes are also exacerbated by the fact that women experience different heart attack symptoms than men, which has led to limited treatments and therapies.

Empathy can transform outcomes. By treating patients based on their unique demographics, backgrounds, and medical histories, you can offer better preventative and urgent care. In particular, nurses must educate themselves about how medical conditions can appear in minority and underserved groups to avoid missing any potential symptoms of a harmful medical condition.

One action you can take to build your empathetic viewpoint is signing up for continuing education courses in the nursing field. Take a handful of newly updated classes that are relevant to your field at least once a year. As research brings more medical information about diverse populations to light, nursing practices will evolve and you’ll continue to improve your capability as an empathetic nurse. Taking this step will help you stay informed about how to personalize your treatments.

Additionally, seek case studies from medical journals that outline new findings about disparities in patient symptoms, especially for conditions you frequently treat. For example, you can study the relationship between COVID-19 symptoms and ethnic backgrounds or learn about how different races are affected by depression in different ways.

Avoiding Burnout

Empathy can also help nurses support each other. As the medical field continues to face growing issues with burnout, with nearly 40% of nurses dreading work each year, nurses who can empathize with their colleagues can help alleviate their stress (and vice versa). Nurses must increasingly focus on developing strong bonds — bonds that overcome cultural and personal differences — to recognize the signs of burnout in each other.

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Creating a support network can help you effectively treat patients long-term instead of running into compassion fatigue. Network with your colleagues, as well as other nurses in your area, to build a formal support group that meets regularly and chats on a Facebook Group or Discord server. Use this group to share stories or simply destress around people who understand your experiences, as long as you ensure you are not violating HIPAA regulations.

Empathy is the Heart of Nursing

Empathy will always be at the heart of good nursing. While sympathy can help us react in a caring manner, empathy allows nurses to fully step into their patients’ shoes and fully understand their needs. This is essential for ever-improving outcomes. Since every patient communicates and experiences medical conditions differently, acting with empathy can help you find the right treatment plans for every individual. Empathy can also help you avoid subconscious biases that can lead to inequitable treatment.

Empathetic nurses can also support each other through the challenges of nursing. As a result, it can lead to reduced burnout, allowing nurses to continue caring for patients as they best can.

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