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Why empathy matters in healthcare

In times of heartache or confusion, empathy can make the difference. I experienced this firsthand when my father was days away from dying. My mother, with great feeling, spoke to my dad’s doctor about how she believed wholeheartedly my dad was going to be healed and come back home with her. The doctor could have dismissed my mother’s emotions, but he didn’t.

He simply listened.

There were many differences that separated this physician from my family. He was of a different religion and culture. He was a neurologist, which gave him tons of knowledge and skill in an area where we knew next to nothing. Yet he showed empathy toward my mom, which was a message she could hear through — and perhaps because of — her grief.

His compassion helped us understand and find peace during our heartache.

I could tell by his facial expressions that it pained him to give the bad news. I don’t remember his exact words, but I do remember not one word had to do with the science of why my father was going to die. Rather, he acknowledged my mom’s true desire that my dad return home with her, but then he gently expressed what he realistically feared for my father. This physician, in the same amount of time it would have taken him to fill the room with medical jargon, changed the trajectory of our thinking by showing empathy. His compassion helped us understand and find peace during our heartache.

Related: A thank you letter to nurses everywhere

This doctor’s expression of empathy caused my family to believe he was on our side. He became more than a neurologist. He became a fellow human who has experienced loss and grief like the rest of us.

You’ve likely been a patient before in some way, shape or form. You’ve likely also experienced a situation like mine where you’re concerned about a loved one in critical condition. While nothing can fully ease the pain during these times, I sincerely hope that you, too, have experienced the power of empathy.

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We respond empathetically to others’ emotions because we know that if we haven’t “been there” in the patient’s shoes, we know that we could be.

As healthcare professionals, we always aim to care for you with compassion. In so many ways, this empathy truly can make the difference. Empathy recognizes what all of us as human beings have in common — the ability to be frightened, anxious or overwhelmed. We respond empathetically to others’ emotions because we know that if we haven’t “been there” in the patient’s shoes, we know that we could be. It’s not difficult to see through another person’s eyes, which is a good way to define true empathy.

Related: When the doctor becomes the breast cancer patient

I recently asked a grateful colorectal cancer patient if there was anyone she would want to specifically recognize as having done an outstanding job caring for her. She mentioned her night nurse and then a 30-year environmental services employee who had cleaned her room the day before. When I asked for more details on what the EVS employee did that made her take note, the patient simply said, “She cared.”

It makes me wonder, How do you sterilize a room in a way that clearly demonstrates you care? I’m thinking it has something to do with perhaps the most important factor of empathy — when it becomes an action verb. It isn’t enough to simply care. True empathy involves showing that you care.

It isn’t enough to simply care. True empathy involves showing that you care.

As someone who has been the recipient of empathy in a healthcare setting, I can say that it was the one factor that built trust between me and the hospital staff. The skill and knowhow of my dad’s care team were over the top, but it took empathy to assure me that the staff had me and my family’s best interest in mind. Their empathy made the difference.

This is exactly what we all desire for you as a patient — expert care, the best in technology and research, and a team of professional caregivers that not only cares, but shows it.

Related: Why being a physician is a blessing and a privilege

About the author

Alan Wright, M.Div.
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Alan Wright is a chaplain at Baylor Charles A. Sammons Cancer Center on the Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas hospital campus.

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Why empathy matters in healthcare