Wednesday, February 16, 2011

What is empathy....really?

Empathy as defined in the Webster’s dictionary is the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts and experience. Preferring simpler language, I think empathy means trying to imagine another person’s life without actually experiencing it.

A constant source of kitchen table discussion is uncertain needs of a friend with cancer or co-worker with a critically ill child. It can be a struggle to find the adequate margins and depth of empathy that matches the desired support. Understanding empathy begins with discussion but then moves into action, more clearly defining the word.

Empathy must also be found in our relationships between patient and medical doctor, offering another category of discussion around the table. An article written by Thomas Dahlborg recently published in Hospital Impact titled, “How a lack of empathy affects our healthcare” addresses some concerns as to why the importance of empathy between patient and physician seems lacking despite their oath.

This article strikes a very personal nerve for me because we consistently faced the empathy dilemma in our son’s healthcare. One of our challenges as a family with a critically ill child was getting the medical community to see us beyond the diagnosis, with eyes of empathy. The dynamics of a patient’s life and their family can not be excluded from the treatment plan. We were a real family with full time jobs and work demands, busy kids school and sports schedules, even a camper in the driveway before this horrible disease came to live with us. Taking that into account along with the many ways life had to change to make room for this disease was our new reality and affected Michael’s overall health condition.

Sharing real life experiences opens the door to increasing empathy by representing the patient family perspective in healthcare at Be The Change presentations. Talking about our human experience puts a real face to the diagnosis and raises the question of empathy in current healthcare strategies. Providers need to know the life of their patients in order to properly care for the total health of the patient and the family unit and our real life medical stories demonstrates the need for that.

While our son Michael fought against his disease, we as his parents were forced to fight an additional battle with what the disease was doing to our family. It would be unthinkable for a patient to treat an illness alone without the help of a doctor. The same is true in the healthcare battle with empathy; it can not be done alone. We share the responsibility of enhancing relationships between patients, families and their providers, the kind of relationship that creates strong partnerships and increases human capacity to practice empathy. Sometimes in the midst of discussion with Michael’s doctors about a possible procedure or surgery I had to remind them that this is my son; he’s a little boy not just a rare disease. Those words brought us into a new arena and allowed a decision about Michael’s medical care to be empathetic and statistical.

The need is here and now, for us to line up the patient family perspective with the medical perspective in the medical education system. Attaching Be The Change methodology to current medical curriculum is the missing link to putting empathy back as a priority in healthcare. Written and spoken curriculum taught by one who has lived the experiences of the patient and family perspective in health care, provides an education that can not be learned from any text book.

Be The Change MN agrees with the views of the article mentioned. “We must tackle the hard stuff” to radically increase empathy in healthcare and really Be The Change.

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