Can dentists learn empathy?

In her ongoing New York Times blog about the doctor-patient relationship, Dr. Pauline Chen discusses whether doctors can learn to be (more) empathetic with their patients.

Dr. Chen points out that empathy has always been considered an essential component of compassionate care, and recent research has shown that its benefits go far beyond the exam room. Greater physician empathy has been associated with fewer medical errors, better outcomes and more satisfied patients. It also results in fewer complaints to the regulatory body and indeed, happier doctors.

In UK dentistry, it seems the Commission on Quality Care (CQC) has pursued these findings to require dentists to make empathy more of a core value for their services. Dentists, for example, now must formalize more interface with their patients, and must somehow document they have done so to satisfy the CQC inspector. (In one dental practice I recently visited, this new requirement was hopelessly met by a suggestion box at the door of the waiting room.)

But regulatory standards are one thing when it comes to soft skills such as empathy or emotional intelligence. The real issue is can dentists learn to be empathetic or more emotionally intelligent, particularly given the imperatives of meeting a high fixed cost with often reduced dental visits?

It seems they can and they must.

Dr. Chen’s blog describes a successful training program which markedly improves physician empathy, including her own. I encourage you to read it.

In dentistry, perhaps the most important point about empathy is that older adult patients want such an approach from their provider. One indication of this preference, is that risk assessment is by far the most favoured by the patient. And I think what the patients are saying in wanting more risk assessment from their dentists, is the simple matter of face-to-face consultation over oral health – in short, some empathy mixed with some guidance.

Older patients are often more demanding clinically and emotionally. As they pay more and more of the dental fees out of their own pocket, and as they search the web for more health care information, the demand for more interface and empathy will only increase.

Ross Perry

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