Empathy & Relational Science Program

Empathy and Relational Science Program: Our History

History of our program

The Empathy and Relational Science Program offers teaching, training, consultation, and research to improve empathy in health care. The program has grown from decades of academic and pedagogical experience in optimizing the patient-clinician relationship.

Dr. Helen Riess, Director of the Empathy and Relational Science Program, is a psychiatrist who developed an empathy training approach based on cutting-edge research in the neurobiology and physiology of empathy at Massachusetts General Hospital. This approach has been rigorously tested at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in pilot studies and a randomized controlled trial. The training resulted in improved physician empathy, determined by patient ratings before and after the training, and demonstrates that empathic skills can be learned and enhanced. Dr. Riess and her colleagues have devoted their careers to mentoring resident physicians in relational skills.

Studies have demonstrated that the degree of empathy plays a significant role in improving outcomes in medicine, adherence to treatments, predicting quality of care, patient safety and satisfaction, and in decreasing malpractice claims. Research also documents that empathy tends to decline throughout medical training and that this decline is often not addressed. Our program goals are to provide expertise in critical domains to address the need for greater relational skills in healthcare and to improve provided well being and career satisfaction. By addressing greater satisfaction in both patients and providers, we aim for improvement in all medical encounters.

Patient satisfaction of medical care is a foremost priority of Massachusetts General Hospital and Partners Healthcare Systems. Our empathy training approach was integral to a quality improvement initiative at Massachusetts General Hospital that trained over 1500 physicians. Increased scrutiny of patient satisfaction ratings has led to leadership efforts to improve how our patients receive care. These efforts have resulted in improved patient satisfaction with their healthcare providers.