Navigating Empathy: Building Connections Amidst Masks in Healthcare

In healthcare, empathy serves as the cornerstone of patient-provider relationships. But with face masks now a ubiquitous part of our attire, how do we maintain this vital connection with patients? In this blog article we explore practical ways to convey empathy despite the barrier of PPE. We have included unattributed quotes to help illustrate the strategies in context.

Eye Contact:

When entering a patient’s room, your eyes become your most powerful tool for connection. Research shows that eye contact plays a crucial role in building rapport and trust between healthcare providers and patients (Kleinke, 1986). Even with masks, making deliberate eye contact can convey attentiveness and understanding. Consider the experience of Dr. Smith, who, despite wearing a mask, ensures to make direct eye contact with each patient. “I’ve found that maintaining eye contact, even when my smile is hidden, helps patients feel acknowledged and understood,” says Dr. Smith.

Body Language:

Body language speaks volumes, even behind a mask. Lean in slightly and nod to show engagement. These small gestures signal your openness and empathy. Studies have demonstrated that body language accounts for a significant portion of human communication, with gestures and posture conveying empathy and engagement (Mehrabian, 1971). Take inspiration from Nurse Rodriguez, who, during her interactions with patients, adopts an open posture and nods in understanding. “Even though my face is covered, I want my patients to know that I’m fully present and empathetic,” she explains.


Tone of Voice:

Your voice carries emotional weight. Speak softly and with warmth, ensuring your tone conveys reassurance and compassion. According to research in patient communication, the tone of voice used by healthcare providers can greatly influence patient satisfaction and perceived empathy (Zolnierek & DiMatteo, 2009). Nurse Patel shares her approach, “I’ve learned that patients can sense compassion through the tone of my voice, even when they can’t see my smile. Speaking gently helps create a comforting atmosphere.”

Facial Expressions (Behind the Mask):

While masks may conceal facial expressions, studies suggest that the eyes play a significant role in conveying emotions and empathy (Guéguen & Jacob, 2002). Practicing smiling with your eyes can help convey kindness and empathy to patients. Consider the example of Dr. Chen, who practices smiling with her eyes during patient interactions. “I’ve noticed that patients respond positively to the warmth in my eyes, even when my mouth is covered,” she observes.

Active Listening:

Active listening is key. Set aside distractions and truly engage with your patients. Active listening techniques have been shown to improve patient satisfaction and outcomes, as they demonstrate empathy and validation (Suchman et al., 1997). Reflecting patients’ emotions back to them validates their experiences and fosters a deeper connection. Nurse Thompson emphasizes the importance of listening attentively to patients. “Reflecting back patients’ concerns and emotions shows them that they’re being heard and understood,” she shares. “It deepens our connection.”

Personalised Care:

Personalised care goes a long way. Take the time to learn about your patients beyond their medical history. Showing genuine interest fosters a deeper connection and develops trust. Research indicates that personalised care leads to greater patient satisfaction and adherence to treatment plans (Street et al., 2013). Dr. Garcia takes the time to learn about his patients beyond their medical history. “I recently had a patient who mentioned her love for gardening,” he recalls. “Taking a moment to discuss her hobby not only brightened her day but also strengthened our rapport.”

Prioritise Self-Care:

Prioritise your own well-being to show up fully present for your patients. Engage in self-care practices that replenish your spirit. Studies have highlighted the importance of healthcare provider well-being in delivering compassionate care (West et al., 2016). Prioritizing self-care through practices such as mindfulness and stress management ensures that providers can show up fully present for their patients. Nurse Lee practices mindfulness and stress management techniques to stay present for her patients. “By taking care of myself, I’m better equipped to provide compassionate care to others,” she reflects.

Empathy remains a vital component of healthcare interactions, even amidst masks and PPE. By leveraging eye contact, body language, tone of voice, active listening, and personalized care, healthcare professionals can continue to foster meaningful connections with their patients. We encourage you to share your own experiences via our social media pages and would love to hear how you have implemented the strategies in your practice. Together, let’s navigate empathy and build stronger, more compassionate healthcare relationships.


  • Guéguen, N., & Jacob, C. (2002). “Direct Look Effect on Tipping: An Evaluation in a French Context.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 32(12), 2602–2605.
  • Kleinke, C. L. (1986). “Gaze and Eye Contact: A Research Review.” Psychological Bulletin, 100(1), 78–100.
  • Mehrabian, A. (1971). “Silent Messages.” Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
  • Street Jr, R. L., Makoul, G., Arora, N. K., & Epstein, R. M. (2009). “How Does Communication Heal? Pathways Linking Clinician–Patient Communication to Health Outcomes.” Patient Education and Counseling, 74(3), 295–301.
  • Suchman, A. L., Markakis, K., Beckman, H. B., & Frankel, R. (1997). “A Model of Empathic Communication in the Medical Interview.” Journal of the American Medical Association, 277(8), 678–682.
  • Zolnierek, K. B., & DiMatteo, M. R. (2009). “Physician Communication and Patient Adherence to Treatment: A Meta-Analysis.” Medical Care, 47(8), 826–834.
  • West, C. P., Dyrbye, L. N., Erwin, P. J., & Shanafelt, T. D. (2016). “Interventions to Prevent and Reduce Physician Burnout: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” The Lancet, 388(10057), 2272–2281.




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