It’s ironic in an age where we have the technological advances to extend the lives of others in ways we’ve never dreamed possible that we struggle with the simple act of connecting with others, but we do. We will save their life–but putting ourselves in their shoes and being able to connect with them compassionately seems a lost and dying art.
The fact is patients–and by patients I mean humans–want to be cared for as people. Yes, we want to be treated, healed or cured, but we also want to be listened to and cared for as individuals. We want someone, but especially those caring for us, to understand our suffering and do what they can to alleviate it. Suffering doesn’t always come from our diagnosis, or the treatment of that diagnosis. Suffering sometimes comes from the demeanors and actions–or lack thereof– of the caregivers themselves.
Burnout plays a role in the diminishing presence of empathetic care. In his book, An Epidemic Of Empathy in Healthcare, Thomas H. Lee, MD describes the rise of burnout among clinicians due to the fact that, “many clinicians and others in healthcare feel weary from the struggle to get through the day, and they despair about their ability to make a difference in the problems of individual patients, let alone the overall challenges of healthcare.” Healthcare can easily seem to big and to complicated to even begin to make a meaningful difference.
The good news is, we can. The bad news is the bigness, and the complicatedness, isn’t going away. But there are certain truths that bring me hope as we encourage and nurture a culture of empathy towards patients and towards each other as caregivers, and those that support caregivers.
As my colleagues and I discussed content for an upcoming training on empathy, we went back and forth looking for a simple and straightforward definition of empathy. We started sharing stories from patients’ experiences, and then from our own: when we had experienced empathy ourselves, or when we had extended it to others. Themes started popping up, and one in particular stood out from the rest: connection.
Over and over in every story of empathy is a story of connection. Of knowing something about the other that may have nothing to do with their medical issue, but that suddenly makes them as human to us as those closest to us, and maybe even as human to us as ourselves.
A Really Good Question to Ask to Nurture Connection
One easy way to proactively bring empathy into your everyday interactions with patients (or colleagues, or team members) is to get to know them as a person, outside of their role (patient, coworker, staff) in the healthcare setting. Ask, “So, when you aren’t in a hospital bed, what do you like to do?” For colleagues or staff members, “So, when you aren’t working, what do you like to do?”
My own experience asking this question has brought me nothing but delight as I’ve had the opportunity to get to know some really amazing people. At that point, caring for their needs becomes much more meaningful, because they do mean something to me. Their real. I’ve connected with them. My own humanity has identified with theirs. Their needs feel much less burdensome, and fulfilling them brings me a higher sense of fulfillment and joy.
empathy [ˈɛmpəθɪ] : The power of understanding and imaginatively entering into another person’s feelngs
We Can Make a Difference, and that Difference Can Spread
The good thing is that empathy can spread, like an epidemic. Social norms subtly and often unconsciously influence our own behaviors all the time. Case in point: I was at Costco the other day, and they were asking for donations for the Children’s Miracle Network. Usually I don’t give to one offs, but the guy in front of me so quickly and enthusiastically said, “YES!” when asked that when my turn came I was compelled to give as well. The same is true for any behavior we are subject to, whether it be giving, picking up litter, or showing empathy. The more see it in others, the more we are more prone to demonstrate it. The more we demonstrate it, the more it will influence those around us.
How about you? When have you experience empathy? How do you demonstrate towards others? I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments below!