Bioethical communication: shared decision-making and relational empathy

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Background: Theoretical tensions in shared decision-making (SDM) exist among bioethical principles, patient autonomy, and evidence-based medicine. Scholars in biomedicine have looked to empathy as a component of SDM that may assist in decreasing these conflicts. Method: This article outlines a theoretical foundation for incorporating relational empathy in SDM. Informed by interpersonal communication theory and bioethics, relational empathy becomes an intrinsic component in the initial phase of SDM. Results: Healthcare providers should consider developing relational empathy with their patients before they address treatment options. Relational empathy, especially in the context of values elicitation and clarification, may increase patient participation and provide more symmetrical communication opportunities. Relational empathy also assists in developing relational autonomy, which shifts the emphasis in SDM from the traditional bioethical view of the autonomous individual to a definition of autonomy that describes a person in relation with others. Conclusion: Increased opportunities for relational empathy through interpersonal communication may provide a more ethical communication context for SDM.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)164-174
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Communication in Healthcare
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 3 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Communication
  • Health Information Management


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