In late April of this year, I had the pleasure of attending a three day course in Denver dubbed “Manipalooza”. This course was put on by a PT educational group called Evidence in Motion, which is led by many important names in physical therapy research including Dr. Tim Flynn, Dr. Julie Whitman, and Dr. John Childs. Despite the name, the conference was not all about manipulations, which is a technique that physical therapists use to provide a high-velocity low-amplitude thrust during joint mobilization. The course also included speakers who addressed the group regarding interesting and relevant information, such as pain science and concussion diagnosis and treatment. One of the speakers that interested me the most was Dr. Larry Benz, DPT, OCS, MBA, MAPP, as he spoke about a term that is very important in the field of physical therapy: empathy.
Let’s first take a look at the definition of empathy in a medical context. As described by Hojat et al.,
“[We] define empathy in the context of medical education and patient care as a predominantly cognitive (as opposed to affective or emotional) attribute that involves an understanding (as opposed to feeling) of patients’ experiences, concerns, and perspectives combined with a capacity to communicate this understanding. An intention to help by preventing and alleviating pain and suffering is a characteristic of empathy expressed in the context of patient care.”1
One of the things that Dr. Benz touched on during his lecture was the difference between empathy and sympathy. It would be one thing for us, as physical therapists, to be sympathetic toward your pain and elude that. However, being empathetic to your pain and trying to understand your experience and perspective allows us to further help to come up with solutions to your problem, whether it be chronic pain or an acute injury.
A strong sense of empathy, I believe, one of the things that sets physical therapists apart from other healthcare professionals. And, not only do I believe this, but patients do, too. A recent study sought to examine the meaning of caring from the perspectives of patients undergoing physical therapy.2 The results of this pilot study indicated that physical therapists have “embraced caring as a core value in clinical practice that reflects a deep commitment to patient-centered care.”2 Some of the main examples that the study found regarding patient perceptions of their physical therapists included such statements as, “[my therapist] seems to take an interest in patients beyond just the medical stuff,” and “I think [physical therapists are] pretty good about explaining ‘hey this is what’s going on with this and this is what you’re probably going to experience’”.2 These examples of valuing the patient as an individual and providing reciprocal and ongoing communication are excellent examples of caring, which is very much a part of being an empathetic healthcare provider.2
As healthcare providers, we strive to be empathetic so that we can understand the needs of each patient as an individual. Come and learn what makes physical therapy the optimal solution for healing with an empathetic provider at Tomsic Physical Therapy by scheduling an appointment with one of our specialized therapists today.
- Hojat M, Vergare MJ, Maxwell K, et al. The devil is in the third year: a longitudinal study of erosion of empathy in medical school. Acad Med. 2009;84(9):1182-1191.
- Greenfield B, Keough E, Linn S, et al. The Meaning of Caring from the Perspectives of Patients Undergoing Physical Therapy: A Pilot Study. J Allied Health. 2010;39(2):e-43-47.