The healing power of empathy is grossly underestimated. In the current medical care system, it is not recognized nor utilized as an important part of treatment.
Dr. Brené Brown has created an excellent animated video to explain empathy and the difference between empathy and sympathy.
This is a summary of the video. You can watch it here or at the bottom of this post.
The four qualities of empathy:
The ability to take the perspective of another person
Staying out of judgment
Recognizing emotion in other people
Communicating that you recognize their emotion
Try to silver-line the problem
Try to make things better
Why has empathy gone missing in action?
Empathy is one important piece of care that has gone missing, and these are the three biggest reasons:
Lack of time: Time is money, so this is also a budget issue. Often healthcare professionals have limited time because the fee for service covers a fraction of the value of the service provided. Many healthcare providers have such a huge caseload, they simply don’t have more time for each patient. Their priority is not to sit and listen to a person, but to get to the point fast and efficiently.
Liability: Liability insurances to cover malpractice and third party insurances make it a priority for healthcare professionals to spend more time recording in ridiculous detail than to actually establish a connection with a person. Getting too close to a patient and establishing a trusting relationship with them is discouraged. Practicing healthcare based on fear for lawsuits will drive one to disconnection and distance. It also limits open mindedness and learning. The brain will shut down and we get through our days on automatic pilot, running safe programs, while trying not to ‘rock the boat’, or ‘make waves’. This is why I admire people like Dr. Brené Brown for stepping out of her comfort zone, for being an open minded scientist and making waves!
Insecurity: Most healthcare professionals just want help to make people better. Each professional has their own expertise and skills, and of course ‘we caregivers’ all think our treatment is going to really work and make things better. The reality is that it is not that simple. Our patients don’t always get better. The EGO in the helper is threatened and we may take this personally. The defense is to try harder and keep treating in spite of the lack of result, to blame the patient for not being compliant, to dismiss and downplay their problem, or to give up by saying ‘there is nothing we can do for you, learn to live with it’. The truth is we feel vulnerable but try to hide it. We feel insecure because we think we are not good enough if our treatment is not helping. We make it about us, instead of our patient. There is nothing wrong with taking the time to show empathy, with not trying to fix the problem quickly. We don’t have to show off our expertise and evidence-based techniques. People are not looking for a diagnosis and a quick fix, they just want to be heard and acknowledged first.
Empathy is missing because we don’t have time, we avoid feeling vulnerable, and we avoid true connection.
During my career as a health care professional, I learned quickly that taking time for patients and listening to them carefully was the first big step towards their healing. Over the years, I felt more and more pressure in the public healthcare system from different directions, which drove me to private practice. Even though I was able to take all the time I wanted with my patients, I still had to comply with professional regulations, which instilled fear, limiting me in making a true connection with my patients, limiting my authenticity. The pressure to always make evidence-based practice a priority was messing with my mind and making me feel insecure. It was driving me further away from my deep conviction that connection, understanding, and education, based on an equal relationship with my patient, were far more important. The mechanical, reductionist science model just does not work very well when dealing with a human being.
This is a call to everyone, not just to healthcare professionals, but every human being. Please practice showing empathy-- to your loved ones, your neighbor, or the stranger on the street, your patient, your doctor, or your therapist. Start a revolution; make some waves and stay open minded, always.