Empathy is generally defined as the identification with, and understanding of another person’s situation, feelings, and motives. While empathy and sympathy are two closely related notions, I believe that the subtle difference between them can be found in the idea of “identification.” The point is that while sympathy says “I understand how you feel and commiserate with you,” empathy goes a step further and says “I feel what you feel.” Such an ability to project oneself into another’s experience can only be rooted in a love for humanity. It is when your ego is relegated to the background, and you focus on other people’s feelings and needs.
Is empathy important? More than you can imagine. Besides, it extends far beyond the symptoms of this or that disease or medical history of a patient. Empathy is not only about diagnosing someone or treating their illnesses. Physician empathy also involves a connection, compassion, and an understanding that encompasses the body, mind, and soul. Once the person working in the field of healthcare starts expressing empathy, it turns into a powerful and effective tool that helps to gain people’s trust, calm them down, and boost health outcomes. According to the research conducted by Dr. Helen Riess of Harvard Medical School, compassion and empathy tend to be associated with a higher level of patients’ satisfaction, better adherence to medical prescriptions, decreased likelihood of malpractice mistakes, and so on. In other words, every other case of expressing empathy to patients advances humanism in the field of healthcare.
Taking everything mentioned above into account, the question appears – how can a busy doctor become more empathetic to boost the patient-physician relationship as a result? Easily, if they take some simple steps when it comes to patient care.
First of all, it is important to pay attention to personal details. They matter a lot. Without a doubt, you don’t have to remember the names of your patient’s hamster. However, it is good to know more than just their surnames. Physicians should take some time to find out some personal details during their next visits, such as important events or life updates. Once the doctors are aware of these details, their patients will not only prove that they really care, but that they have a strong feeling of empathy.
Investing one’s time into each visit is a must. Without a doubt, it is hard to spend even an extra minute since physicians tend to work against the clock. However, if a doctor tries to add a minute or two to every visit to gather some personal information and find out how the patients are doing, they will notice how their empathetic approaches get to the next level. Needless to say, personal relationships with patients are improving in every sense, as a result of this generous time investment.
Showing your support is an integral part of the empathetic approach in healthcare. If a physician sees that a patient is obviously sad or upset about something, they have to acknowledge that the person in front of them is facing tough times. When a doctor is about to diagnose someone, it is important to keep in mind that asking questions is typical for people that aren’t in the field of healthcare. Letting them know that you’re there to answer any sort of question is important because many patients may hesitate or be unable to find the right words.
It is important to think about the situation from the patient’s side. No doubt, many patients tend to wait for their appointment for a long while. Most likely, people have to somehow manage their schedules in order to get an appointment. Some of them have to look for a babysitter to make sure they have someone to watch the little ones. What is more, a lot of patients are upset because they have no idea what their medical condition is. They are anxious about the sum of money that they will be required to pay for medical services. Needless to say, many of them suffer from chronic pain caused by a hard diagnosis. All of the issues mentioned above will make it more difficult for patients to understand the nature of their diagnosis, to come up with the right questions, or to keep in mind all information related to the process of treatment. What is required of a physician? It is important to take some time to ponder over the patients’ perspectives. Imagine yourself in their shoes to get a better idea of the situation and come up with the most empathetic solutions.
What is the power of empathy? When you’re using an empathetic approach in your everyday communication with patients, you get a chance to understand why some patients are angry or depressed. For example, you might get to know that something happened at home that a person is upset about, perhaps, their family member is sick, or they’re in the middle of the divorce process. Instead of getting defensive or reacting to the negative emotions of your patients, you can reach out and ask some simple questions to find out more about the emotional situation. There may be different reasons behind their behavior; however, by using empathy, you will show that your patients are valued and respected. As a result, you will not only build better relationships with your patients but will also prove that you’re a professional in the chosen field.
All in all, empathy is that link that is today missing in the majority of colleges, hospitals, families, and offices. In the transition to adulthood, children can be mean to each other. If people begin to teach empathy in kindergarten, grade, and high school, then chances are our world would become more tolerant, loving, and open-minded not only in the field of healthcare but in the other aspects of life as well.
Is it possible for a physician to be scientifically proficient and objective while also being empathetic? Theoretically, yes. However, when it comes to practice, it depends on the physician’s motives for being in the profession. It all goes back to this love for humanity, which Plato associates with a love for the art of medicine. I do not take this “love” to necessarily mean a warm, fuzzy feeling toward patients, nor do I consider it wallowing in commiseration with them. Rather, I see it as an ability to suffer long to be kind, to not parade oneself, and not behave rudely. Most importantly, I believe that love is about seeking the highest good in every patient. Coupled with a solid understanding of the art of medicine, as Blumgart puts it, love is “the skillful application of scientific knowledge to a particular person.” It can be a strong motivation to continually seek both scientific proficiency and a deeper understanding of a patient. This is all the more important that about half of the patients who consult a physician reportedly have no organic disease or only minor disorders. Objectivity and empathy are not mutually exclusive notions in the areas of patient care, as long as the highest good of the patient remains the primary goal.