How physicians can show empathy over virtual visits

As physicians maneuver the transition to virtual care during the COVID-19 pandemic, they can still exhibit empathy toward their patients by adopting verbal and nonverbal habits.

Empathy can help physicians enhance communication and build trust with their patients, according to a study published in the Journal of the Society of General Internal Medicine. This in turn benefits the treatment process and can help decrease patient anxiety.

Expressing empathy through virtual visits is especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic because virtual care is the safest way to help prevent patients and clinicians from contracting the novel coronavirus, according to Cleveland Clinic's COVID-19 Digital Health Playbook.

Physicians can express empathy both nonverbally and verbally over virtual visit. Nonverbal displays of empathy include maintaining direct eye contact with the patient by looking into the camera to show interest in what the patient is saying and in their care. Some other nonverbal tips to show empathy are exaggerating motions like head nods so the patient knows the physician is listening.

"Develop a 'video presence' that includes staying visually attentive, exaggerating facial expressions at times and ensuring the patient has a clear view of your face and body language," Cleveland Clinic's playbook states.

Statements such as "I'm here for you" and "let's work together to figure out what's going on" can also help physicians increase their show of empathy. Further, verbally acknowledging and validating the patient's feelings or experience can help the patient feel more understood and strengthen their care experience, according to Cleveland Clinic.

Philadelphia-based Jefferson Health emergency medicine physician Aditi Joshi, MD, practiced empathy to enhance her virtual visit experience with patients when providing care to COVID-19 patients last month, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Dr. Joshi, who had been diagnosed with COVID-19, said contracting the virus helped her better understand her patients.

When conducting virtual visits with patients, Dr. Joshi would focus on what patients are worrying about most. "The reality is you can't control a lot of things, so I listen to people, and try to understand what their fear is," she said.

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