While talking about values of relationships, author Henri J.M Nouwen states that, “When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand.” There is a power that comes with the ability to empathize with others. It breaks the barrier between caring for someone and actually making them feel cared for. Practicing empathy with your patients can also help with prevention of anxiety attacks, as stays in the hospital can be an extremely stressful time.
It can be very common in a physician’s environment to feel a sense of burnout. Long hours, stressful situations, the weight of the world on your shoulders, can all be common frustrating feelings that come along with the profession. It is common for physicians to forget that there are healthy and altruistic ways to get over what feels like a total burnout.
It is commonly noted that empathy from physicians towards their patients have shown great merit on the patient’s part, as it creates a feeling of both trust and comradery. For example, in a study done in Romagna, Italy of over 20,000 patients with diabetes mellitus, research was found that physicians with elevated empathy scores (compared with physicians with moderate to diminished empathy scores) had a significantly lower rate of acute metabolic complications. Another study done in at the University of Madison in Wisconsin studied over 700 clinical encounters with patients who had the common cold. Out of these patients, those who gave their physician a perfect empathy score noted that their colds were less severe and lasted fewer days that the patients who gave their physicians lower empathy scores. These are clear indicators that it truly does make difference how one engages with their patients.
High levels of empathy are not only beneficial to patients, practicing empathy can help the physicians as well. There can be a somewhat robotic feeling that is associated with those who work in care. This can come from a feeling of numbing themselves to connection as different people are constantly coming in and out of their life. Inevitably, this can reach out into real life situations with personal friends and family. This burning out can have detrimental effects on one’s psyche and can make a physician feel like there is no point to what they are doing. This is why empathy is so imperative in relationships between a physician and their patient. When one connects with their patient on a deeper level, it makes a job feel less monotonous and more human. Helping people physically evidently feels good, but helping someone physically along with mentally or spiritually is a whole new realm of feeling more positive and confident that what you are doing is worth it.
But how do you practice empathy?
Let’s start with the physical aspects of empathy. Eye contact is an easy physical way to make people feel like you’re listening to what they have to say and make them feel listened to. Another way to express empathy is to mentally put yourself in a patient’s shoes. Making sure you can visualize yourself in someone’s shoes can give you the ability to feel the same emotions they are and thus naturally creating empathy.
Another way to create empathy is to remember specific details about patients. The notion that you remember what they tell you gives the impression that you are a listening to what they have to say and thus they feel heard which translates to empathy. This can be done by adding one minute to every patient visit, this inevitably forces you to search for new information about the patient to fill time and thus creates a closer bond.
To go a step further, you can design a patient satisfaction survey in order to target specific questions and have patients tell you specifically what can be worked on in the realm of empathy and connection, eventually creating something to work on and making one feel less “burnt out”.
Through these tools, you can become a more dynamic and well rounded doctor, while giving those that you work with the ability to feel sound about such stressful situations.