Soft skills training is just as important as medical school.

Soft skills training is just as important as medical school.

Soft skills, also known as interpersonal skills, are the emotional, behavioral, and attitude-based components of a doctor’s overall bedside manner.

On paper, soft skills may seem less important than clinical degrees and academic training, but from a patient’s perspective and when considering health outcomes, it makes a huge difference.

The hard skills students learn in medical school are honed and expanded over the course of their careers, yet studies have shown that soft skills, like empathy, actually decline during the later years of medical school and residency.

It’s understandable how this can happen—clinicians who are tasked with working within an understaffed, overburdened health care system are at constant risk of burning out.

Asking them to do even more for their patients could seem counterintuitive and insurmountable. But soft skills can actually reduce burnout, help care teams work together better, and promote more productive patient interactions.

This is why it’s crucial to implement soft skills training for health care staff.

What are essential soft skills for health care professionals?

Unlike clinical skills, soft skills are not as easy to quantify, and may not be listed on a resume. However, they become visible during interpersonal interactions. Peer and patient feedback are both excellent ways to assess a clinician’s soft skills.

Which soft skill is the most important is subjective to each clinician and patient’s feelings, but experts agree that there are a set of core emotional intelligence skills, including:

  • Empathy. Being able to actively listen, emotionally connect, and understand how diagnosis and treatments affect a patient’s well-being.
  • Communication. Clearly and compassionately explaining interventions, procedures, and expected outcomes.
  • Self-awareness. Acknowledging biases, managing the effects of stress, and accepting feedback.
  • Teamwork. Working together with colleagues as well as patient support systems.
  • Adaptability and problem-solving. Being able to stay calm in stressful situations, remain solution-oriented, and de-escalate conflicts.

Why empathy is important for doctors.

Research has shown that empathy improves patient outcomes in a number of ways:

  • It builds trust. When patients feel like they can trust their doctor, they are more willing to open up about their histories and be honest about their experience.
  • It promotes better treatment adherence. Trust is a major predictor of patient adherence, and patients who felt that their clinician was empathetic and genuinely cared about them were more likely to take treatments as prescribed.
  • It can decrease severity and duration of illness. Studies have shown that patients with the common cold who perceived their health care providers as empathetic had shorter, less severe bouts of illness.

Soft skills can also help clinicians develop a better understanding of patients with backgrounds that differ from their own.

Empathy and self-awareness are both crucial to delivering culturally competent care, which has been shown to positively improve patient outcomes. There’s a big difference between treating a patient’s symptoms and being aware of larger contexts—the communities they belong to, the social determinants of health that may impact their situation, or if they experience racism, homophobia, and/or transphobia in health care.

But patients aren’t the only ones to benefit from a doctor’s emotional intelligence, it benefits clinicians, too. When a doctor can regulate their own emotional responses and deal with stress they are less likely to experience burnout. Studies have also shown that better communication skills can lower the risk of litigation and malpractice lawsuits. With empathy in health care, everyone wins.

How to improve soft skills training for clinicians.

Emotional intelligence may come naturally for some people, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be learned like any other skill. To improve and expand soft skills training within and outside of medical school relies on many of the same principles of typical compliance training. Clinicians need to commit to learning soft skills as an ongoing process of self-reflection that extends beyond one-off workshops.

  • Mentorship. Ananth Ravi, PhD suggests encouraging medical students to train under clinicians who excel at emotional intelligence skills as well as clinical skills.
  • Practice groups. According to leadership experts Jamil Zaki and Hitendra Wadhwa, using a practice group can accelerate learning by encouraging accountability and camaraderie.
  • Case studies. Lisa Davila, MS, RN lists case studies as a helpful way to learn about challenging skills. By reading how an individual or team was able to navigate a certain issue from start to finish, clinicians can see soft skills in action.

The term “soft skills” implies that skills like stress management, self-awareness, and empathy are easier to achieve than the “hard” skills acquired with a degree.

The truth is, learning soft skills requires practice, ongoing commitment, and a willingness to be vulnerable. It may be challenging at first, but the benefits are wide-ranging for both patients as well as clinicians and health care organizations.

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