IUPUI Researchers Developing App to Increase Empathy in Doctors

Going to the doctor is rarely fun, but the experience is infinitely more pleasant and productive when physicians and patients are communicating well and feel mutually respected.

With such common goals, one might be tempted to think the doctor-patient relationship is a no-brainer, but that does not seem to be the case. According to a pair of researchers at IUPUI, there is a breakdown when it comes to empathy.

Amber Comer, a professor with the university’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, is collecting data to study a new app-driven way of increasing empathy among physicians. If successful, Comer and her research partner, philanthropic studies professor Sara Konrath, plan to launch a startup around commercializing the app.

Comer and Konrath began their research with the goal of figuring out why patients and doctors have such different ideas of what empathy looks and sounds like. Comer, who is married to a doctor and has served on the ethics board for the IU Health system, had long wondered why there was such a disconnect between doctors and their patients. “How doctors describe empathy is different from how patients describe it,” Comer explains. “Patients don’t really know a good doctor from a bad doctor, but they do know if they’ve felt cared for—if the doctor was nice to them. Doctors feel they’re being caring, but the patients don’t see it that way because there’s a different interpretation of empathy.”

As part of the study, Comer evaluates how neurologists when they speak with family members of patients who have experienced a traumatic stroke. After observing the conversation, she interviews the doctor and the family members to find out how both parties judged the interaction in terms of empathy.

Comer has found that physicians often think they are being extremely empathetic, but family members don’t see it the same way. What feels like professional and efficient behavior to doctors, for example, is interpreted by patients as acting gruff or impersonal.  Comer says that, as part of the research, she also asks doctors to describe past incidents where they did a good job of being empathetic, as well as times when they did not do a good job of being empathetic.

“They often can’t think of a time when they weren’t empathetic, which makes me wonder if doctors are aware of how they come off to patients,” she adds.

Comer compares the disconnect between doctors and patients to “love language” books that tell men they’re from Mars and women they’re from Venus. “If doctors are not speaking the same empathy language as patients, patients won’t perceive empathy,” she says.

While bridging the empathy gap is important for improving patient care, it also plays a role in hospital readmissions and whether or not a doctor gets paid as more hospitals move to reimbursement models based on patient satisfaction surveys, Comer says. Plus, when doctors generally have a limited amount of time to spend with each patient, it’s critical that each interaction is as productive as possible.

Comer and Konrath plan to use the preliminary data they’re collecting to develop the 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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