Emotional Intelligence in Your Practice: Essential for Better Health Outcomes

Emotional Intelligence (EQ) has been a hot topic since Daniel Goleman introduced and popularized the concept in his best-selling book in 1995. But how does empathy apply in the context of patient care?

Mohammadreza Hojat, a research professor of psychiatry and human behavior in the Center for Research in Medical Education & Health Care at Thomas Jefferson University, defines empathy, as it applies to patient care, in three concepts:
  • Understanding a patient’s experiences, concerns, and suffering
  • Ability to communicate this understanding
  • Intention to help

In an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, Hojat explains that the reason empathy is so important in a medical setting is because his research showed that physicians who score higher on empathy have more positive outcomes. He shared one specific study where a group of family practitioners were tested on their empathy levels. The researchers also reviewed the EHRs of the participant’s diabetic patients.

The study found that those physicians who scored higher on empathy had a higher proportion of diabetic patients who were able to get their diabetes under control.

He explained that there were several reasons for this conclusion:
  • When patients had a more empathetic engagement with their provider, this often leads to a more trusting relationship.
  • With a more trusting relationship, a patient might reveal more of their health condition and not try to conceal important information – they would be more honest with their provider.
  • This stronger engagement leads to a better diagnosis because the provider gets the whole picture – not just part of the patient’s health issues.

In Kareo’s 2021 State of the Independent Practice Survey, nearly 70% of providers who participated said that a provider’s willingness to actively listen is extremely important to quality of care. You can download the survey report here.

In summary, with better interaction and more patient satisfaction in the therapeutic process, studies show that the quality of care is enhanced and more errors are eliminated.

We know as a provider you care about your patients and have empathy for them, but displaying empathy on the outside can get lost with all the stress and demands you have as a busy healthcare provider. But sometimes a single phrase can prove how much you really do care about patients. And with a few behavioral tactics, you can demonstrate your professional competence while still building trust and compassion.

In honor of National Emotional Awareness Month, we adapt some of Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence book recommendations to current conditions for healthcare providers.  It's about striking a balance between showing you care and maintaining authority.

1. Pay attention to your own feelings.

Emotions often go unnoticed when you’re stressed and overworked. You think you can mask your feelings and no one will notice. But patients, colleagues and spouses all pick up on your emotional state. In fact, they may notice that you’re frustrated or angry before you do and assume that they’re to blame. Simply noticing how you’re feeling can be a big help. Start with your body. Clenched jaw? Knotted stomach? Cramped shoulder? You know your own signals. Then label the emotion that’s behind the discomfort.

“Oh look. My hand is in a fist again. I must be way more tense than I’d thought.”

2. Manage your emotions in the present.

Take a deep breath. Then take another. Often this is all it takes to become centered. Examine whether your stressor is temporary or long-term. If long-term, determine whether something needs to change, and vow to make the change after the crisis passes.

“Managing my own feelings helps me to show my patients more compassion and humility.”

3. Notice and articulate patients’ feelings.

Patients may expect you to be a mind reader, intuiting both their physical and emotional condition. Again, their body language gives you clues. Wringing hands, biting lips, hunched posture can all give away that they have emotional distress. While you “read” these cues unconsciously all the time, the patient might not know that you are “hearing” their silent communication. So, verbalize it for them.

“I’m wondering if you have some concerns we haven’t discussed yet.” Or how about, I’m noticing more anxiety in you today than usual. Maybe there’s something you’d like to tell me about.” Try to use statements rather than questions, to avoid the impression that you’re prying, and to encourage your patient to share. Statements also tend to imply greater respect than queries do.

4. Manage your patient’s emotions.

A study by Loyola University Medical Center found that med students started their residencies with slightly above-average emotional intelligence scores. But as the years went on, empathy decreased and assertiveness rose. The authors hypothesized that acquiring new knowledge and skills increased the residents’ self-confidence – possibly at the cost of empathy. Patients want to have it both ways -- to trust you as an expert and as a human being. You can meet these seemingly opposing needs with skillful communication and suggestions.

“I’ve been sharing my professional advice so far. But we both know that feelings can be as painful as physical symptoms. I’m wondering what we can do together to take charge of some of those emotions.”

5. Collaborate with your staff.

Is the patient panicked about paying for treatment? Having issues with transportation to the clinic, or with technology for telehealth? Could other non-clinical problems be affecting their condition? Sometimes patients are most comfortable confiding non-medical information to a nurse or tech. You can use this to your advantage by training staff members in high-EQ communications. Praise them for putting patients at ease, listening carefully to body language and gently searching for innovative ways to connect from the heart.

“Perhaps there’s another concern you’d like to tell me about.” “Something else seems to be on your mind today.”

Statements like these can be used by staff to draw out a patient even before you enter the room.

For more tips on how to improve the patient experience in your practice, download our free e-guide, How to Grow Your Practice and Create a Superior Patient Experience, here.

About the Author

Alesa Lightbourne is a prize-winning author, professor and former dean of an international business school. As a freelance writer, her clients have included Fortune...

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