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Compassionate Communication in Medicine: What It Is & Why It Matters

Compassionate Communication in Medicine: What It Is & Why It Matters

Posted by on Feb 28th 2022

Navigating the doctor-patient relationship requires in-depth teaching about compassionate communication in medicine. Yet, this topic is not always explored in medical training. When it comes to exercising patience, empathy, and understanding toward patients, the most important thing to keep in mind is their vulnerability.

Compassionate communication can often fall by the wayside due to medical professionals feeling overworked and overtired. In an effort to increase efficiency, courtesies can get overlooked. However, in this rush toward quicker turnarounds, crucial information gets lost. When practicing compassionate communication, medical professionals can actually gain valuable insight from their patients that lead to more accurate diagnoses.

Studies have shown that inactive communication – either not listening or ignoring patient concerns – is a leading cause of litigation against doctors. Some 15% of doctor-patient encounters are labeled as “difficult”, making the push toward compassionate communication more important than ever.

What is compassionate communication?

Compassionate communication involves listening carefully to your patients, giving them a chance to speak, and asking them questions that will aid in diagnosis. If, like other medical staff, you feel as though you are being run ragged, you still need to practice active listening and employ open-ended questions to get as much information as possible.

Regularly exercising these skills could decrease the number of required follow-up visits – saving your patient time and resources. You could discover the cause of a condition simply by conversing with your patient in an understanding way without excessive testing or delayed diagnoses.

Three approaches to empathy

The easiest way to be empathetic to the news that you are delivering is to practice active listening and use probing questions to get to the root of the problem. One study found that doctors spend an average of 11 seconds listening to their patients before interrupting. In active listening, you should be listening to understand, not to respond.

In fact, you should be encouraging them to talk to you openly about their symptoms by asking them open-ended questions such as:

  • How are you responding to treatment?
  • What symptoms are you experiencing and how often?
  • When did you first begin experiencing said symptoms?

These basics of interpersonal communication work well to help you put your patient’s mind at ease and educate them on their condition and treatment options.

There are two more rigid schools of thought on how to achieve compassionate communication.


There is one training program used for teaching doctors and other medical staff on how to communicate compassionately that uses the acronym “PROGRAM.” This acronym stands for:

  • Planning the conversation in advance / preparing for the meeting
  • Reviewing all information and confirming with patient and caregivers
  • Observing the patient’s reactions to adjust the approach accordingly.
  • Gradually describe the malady and the treatment options in layman's terms they can understand.
  • Relationships built with the patient and family are important for long-term care
  • Answering all patient and caregiver questions should be your top priority during these conversations, and you should take accountability for the hospital’s role in the condition.
  • Meet again with the patient to answer follow up questions

The CLASS Protocol

Another popular method for communicating with patients, particularly when empathy is required to deliver bad news, is the CLASS Protocol. This is very similar to the PROGRAM, but contains just five easy to follow steps:

  • Context is everything – create a cozy, comfortable, intimate environment that still allows you to appear completely in control of the situation to give them confidence
  • Listening skills – be an active listener
  • Acknowledge and address all concerns
  • Strategy should be developed for individualized treatment
  • Summarize the diagnosis and treatment, making sure that the patient understands before ending the session

Final thoughts

Employing these methods is absolutely critical when delivering sobering news to a patient. However, they should even be applied in standard intake appointments. This will lead to a smoother health journey for your patient, a deeper sense of fulfillment in your work, and more effective diagnoses all around.