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The Language of Empathy

Showing empathy is critical for medical practitioners who often have to discuss sensitive medical information with patients. Patients are more willing to share details when they feel like their provider cares about them. This leads to better overall health outcomes.

In a recent study, University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications Research Assistant Professor and Director of Grants Development Yulia Strekalova, Associate Professor of Advertising and the Director of the STEM Translational Communication Center Janice Krieger, a Ph.D. student Jordan Neil, John P. Caughlin, professor of communication at University of Illinois, and A. J. Kleinheksel and Aaron Kotranza from Shadow Health, a company that creates digital clinical training programs for medical, pharmacy, and nursing students, explored how empathy is translated in the language used by nursing students. The study sought to uncover how nurses can effectively empathize with patients through the way they speak.

Strekalova and her colleagues analyzed communication experiences of 343 nursing students who interacted with a virtual patient, Tina Jones, via a computer program. The students interviewed Tina to gain more information about her medical history. They were also asked to note instances in which they felt that they were expressing empathy toward Tina.

After analyzing their linguistic patterns, the researchers found that the nursing participants communicated with Tina in different ways, some of which demonstrated empathy more effectively than others.

The researchers discovered that student responses to Tina which included only the pronoun “you” were often less effective at conveying empathy. Although patient-centered, these responses did not convey the nurse’s understanding of the patient’s thoughts and feelings. In contrast, responses that included both “I” and “you” tended to be more effective at showing empathy because they were indicative of a two-sided exchange of information.

For example, during the simulated conversation, Tina revealed that she suffered from significant foot pain. Some students replied, “Thank you so much, Ms. Jones, for sharing that information,” in response to Tina’s disclosure. Although polite, the responses did not indicate to Tina that the students understood the impact severe pain might be having on her everyday life.

Another student, replying to Tina’s foot pain, said, “I’m really sorry you are in so much pain, we are going to work on getting that under control for you.” The student both acknowledged the new medical information and also conveyed to Tina a desire to improve her well-being.

“Disclosing private, upsetting, or embarrassing information can be difficult for patients, but this information may be key to successful health evaluation,” the study states. “Inadequate provider response to shared information can lead to information withholding, poor rapport, and patient withdrawal from active shared decision making.”

Yulia A. Strekalova is a research assistant professor and director grants development.

Janice Krieger is the director of the STEM Translational Communication Center and an associate professor in the Department of Advertising.

Jordan Neil is a Ph.D student and research assistant in the STEM Translational Communication Center.

Posted: March 28, 2017
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