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Why Empathy Is Critical in Health Care

Dr. Jennifer Hummel shares why being a good doctor is about more than just a medical degree and how empathy is a key element in patient care.

Seeking medical care, whether it’s an emergency, a scheduled procedure or a routine exam, can be a stressful experience, even for people in good health. That’s why it’s so important that patients have access to the best patient care experiences with their physicians and other healthcare providers.

“Quality patient care means doing what is best for the whole patient — medically, socially, mentally and emotionally,” says Jennifer Hummel, DO, medical director of OB/GYN and midwifery at Jefferson New Jersey Primary & Specialty Care. “It involves treating them safely with the most up-to-date medical practices, keeping their points of view in mind and putting their best interests before everything else.”

One key element to excellent patient care is empathy. Care providers who show empathy make patients feel like they are more than just a number. Dr. Hummel says, “Empathy shows patients that we are human, too. We understand what you’re going through and we truly care for you.”

Studies have shown that provider empathy is associated with better patient experiences and outcomes. Empathetic physicians are more likely to provide higher quality patient care, be more apt to involve patients in decision-making and are more open to discussing individual needs. As patients, it’s easier to communicate with providers who are open to our thoughts and feelings regarding specific health concerns.

And while medical expertise is important, “book knowledge” only gets a physician so far. “Of course patients want to be taken care of physically, but caring for their emotions and mental state allows physicians to truly care for the whole person,” says Dr. Hummel.

Each person’s physical and mental health are connected, which is why the best care comes from providers who take a holistic approach to patient care: “Patients with physical health problems are at an increased risk of developing mental health problems. Physical changes can impact your lifestyle, relationships and day-to-day routines,” says Dr. Hummel. In addition, neglecting your mental health can lead to serious physical complications, such as hypertension, obesity, heart disease, gastrointestinal symptoms, fatigue, insomnia and aches and pains.

While high-quality, holistic patient care takes many forms, it’s all about finding a provider who can put themselves in your shoes and really listen to your concerns — even if they feel trivial. Small details make a world of difference when it comes to medical care, especially for those who are ill or in pain.

“When caring for patients, I always listen closely to their concerns and keep them in mind for the duration of our experience together. As an OB/GYN, things like holding a patient’s hand during a C-section prep, or talking to them throughout surgery may seem small and insignificant, but they make such an impact,” says Dr. Hummel.

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