IUPUI Researchers Developing App to Increase Empathy in Doctors

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text-messaging app, which will be tested with medical students who are seeing patients in hospitals and clinics under the supervision of doctors. The app will be designed to send push reminders to medical students at regular intervals that provide specific instructions on how to convey empathy, such as, “Touch your patient on the arm on the way out of the exam room” or “Try smiling, and look the patient in the eye.”

“It’s a way of saying, ‘This is what empathy looks like to patients,’ or here are small things you can do to increase empathy,” Comer says.

If the app proves successful during testing, Comer says she and Konrath will apply for grants to support the commercialization process. They will also try to find a technical partner to assist with the app’s development and marketing strategy.

Comer stresses that her desire to sell the app has less to do with profit-generation and more to do with helping doctors communicate better with patients. In fact, as a doctor’s wife, she thinks part of the problem may be unrealistic patient expectations encouraged by medical dramas on television.

“Physicians generally don’t have the time or resources to function like TV doctors,” she says. “I spend a lot of time with doctors, and I wish patients could see the underlying empathy I see in my husband and my friends. Doctors usually go into medicine because they genuinely want to help people.”

And what advice would she give frustrated patients who feel like their doctors aren’t listening to them? She says the next time a doctor is rude or gruff, try kindly asking them to take a minute and explain what they’re talking about.

“That tends to make them slow down and think,” she says. “And try not to take it personally. Doctors are often just busy and overwhelmed.”

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