Empathy in Health Care: The Role of Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioners

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Whether an individual is facing a personal health crisis or the entire world is facing the COVID-19 pandemic, empathy in health care couldn’t be more important. Particularly for nurses, who spend a great deal of time with patients, demonstrating genuine empathy can enhance communication and increase patients’ health care satisfaction. Unlike sympathy, which is more of an emotional reaction to a situation, empathy is a complex response that relies on understanding patients’ feelings and enables health care professionals to better assess patients’ needs.

Empathy is especially important when patients face mental illness. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that approximately 20% of U.S. adults lived with a mental illness in 2019. The nature and prevalence of mental illness make the ability of psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners  (PMHNPs) to empathize with their patients a critical component of their care delivery strategy. When PMHNPs show empathy, they can ultimately improve health outcomes.

Individuals who pursue Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) programs and aspire to become PMHNPs can benefit from understanding the important role that empathy plays in helping patients with mental illness.

PMHNP talking to patients in a medical office.

The Characteristics of Empathy in the PMHNP Role

PMHNPs can incorporate empathy into health care in various ways. Employing communication techniques, working toward cultural competency, and demonstrating simple respect and kindness can help PMHNPs show empathy for and develop a relationship of trust with their patients.

Communication

Health care professionals can be very busy, and sometimes it’s easy to forget some of the basic things that facilitate empathic communication. In communicating with patients, information services firm Wolters Kluwer suggests that health care professionals can enhance their empathy by doing the following:

  • Make eye contact to create a connection.
  • Use verbal and nonverbal techniques, such as nodding or paraphrasing a patient’s statements, to engage with the patient (be mindful of how different nonverbal cues may vary between cultures).
  • Be aware of body language (e.g., sit down to show that the patient is a priority).
  • Ask patients questions about how their illnesses have affected their lives.
  • In addition to standard patient information, document related details and ask patients about them in subsequent encounters.
  • Throughout all communication, be alert to specific ways to empathize with patients.

A 2020 study published in the Journal of Patient Experience offered recommendations for achieving empathy in health care during the COVID-19 pandemic, and many of the recommendations can apply to PMHNPs who want to strengthen their interactions with patients. For example, the study recommended creating scripts with suggested wording to help health care professionals deal with sensitive issues. It also suggested developing specific language to use during telemedicine appointments to show empathy toward a patient. Creating scripts and developing suggested language ahead of time improved health care professionals’ ability to effectively communicate with patients, building trust and an open rapport.

Strengthening both verbal and nonverbal communication can enable PMHNPs to create and adjust a patient’s treatment in ways that can ultimately improve health outcomes.

Cultural Competency

Enhancing their cultural competency helps PMHNPs empathize with patients from an array of differing backgrounds. A 2019 study in BMC Nursing found that by expanding cultural awareness of themselves and their patients, nurses could communicate with them more openly and effectively. The study noted the importance of nurses understanding social and cultural dynamics that influence patients’ beliefs about health and health care to help ensure the quality of treatment.

An article in the journal Nursing Made Incredibly Easy suggests that health care professionals who provide mental health care can become more culturally competent by learning about their patients’:

  • Family environments and the physical and psychosocial factors that influence those environments
  • Employment status and the factors that affect the ability of patients with mental illness to gain employment
  • Sexual identity or orientation
  • Spiritual practices and beliefs

Respect and Kindness

Exhibiting respect and kindness is critical in building open rapport with patients. The characteristics are also key elements in the American Nurses Association (ANA) Code of Ethics for Nurses. Provision 1 of the code discusses how respect for human dignity is a principle foundation of the nursing practice. It also explains nurses’ obligation to create an environment of kindness and civility.

An article in Minority Nurse noted that patients with mental illness don’t rely solely on medication to improve their health and that the bond of trust that’s formed between nurses and patients is also critical to positive health outcomes.

Benefits of Empathy from a PMHNP

When PMHNPs demonstrate empathy in health care, they build relationships of trust with their patients that can yield many benefits. For example, a 2020 study published in the journal Healthcare discussed how a trusting relationship can:

  • Encourage patients to share information that can optimize their treatment plans
  • Strengthen the therapeutic relationship, potentially leading to better health outcomes
  • Reinforce patients’ cooperation with their treatment plans, potentially increasing their overall satisfaction
  • Reduce health care professionals’ stress levels and feelings of burnout
  • Empathy and PMHNP Nurse Leadership

Besides fostering empathy with individual patients, PMHNPs in leadership roles can uphold and promote empathy on a more macro level. Equipped with an understanding of patients and their needs, PMHNPs who are in positions of leadership can advocate for measures that enable health care organizations to foster a more empathetic environment.

A 2020 article in the Journal of Medical Ethics suggests several actions, such as the following:

  • Advocate for organizational governing policies that encourage health care professionals to develop and use empathy.
  • Work to reduce barriers to empathy, such as understaffing, and address issues that impair continuity of care.
  • Create incentives to promote greater awareness of the social determinants of health, rather than focus solely on procedures and medications.
  • Promote greater staff resilience by tending to the emotional well-being of staff and addressing issues such as overwork, inadequate pay, and unfair treatment.

Develop Empathy Skills in Nursing

Practicing empathy in health care is critical, and PMHNPs are on the front line in ensuring that patients are treated with empathy. Nurses who are interested in becoming PMHNPs can explore Hawai‘i Pacific University’s online DNP program and its Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner concentration to discover how the program may help them pursue their professional goals. Begin your journey toward a fulfilling career in the field of mental health today.

Recommended Readings

The Benefits of Advanced Nursing: What Is the Expected MSN Salary Range?

Careers in Advanced Nursing: What Is a Family Nurse Practitioner?

How Family Nurse Practitioners Can Play a Major Role in Addressing the Growing Physician Shortage in the U.S.

 

Sources:

American Nurses Association, Code of Ethics for Nurses with Interpretive Statements

BMC Nursing, “Increasing Cultural Awareness: Qualitative Study of Nurses’ Perceptions About Cultural Competence Training”

Journal of Medical Ethics, “The Need for Empathetic Healthcare Systems”

Lippincott, “Culturally Competent Mental Health Care”

Lippincott, “Defining Empathy to Better Teach, Measure, and Understand Its Impact”

Minority Nurse, “The Art of Empathy”

National Center for Biotechnology Information, “The Role of Empathy in Health and Social Care Professionals”

National Institute of Mental Health, Mental Illness

SAGE Journals, “The Use of Empathetic Communication During the COVID-19 Outbreak”

Wolters Kluwer, “How to Show Empathy to Patients — Even When You’re Stressed”