Empathy in Healthcare

Empathy from healthcare providers

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

-To Kill A Mockingbird

At a recent seminar on healthcare personalization through technology in Los Angeles, the main complaint expressed by a panel of non-medical technology experts was the “disconnect between patients and various technology products.” I rose my hand and asked if any of these companies employed “nurses, and or other healthcare related people as consultants?” Blank stares and a long uncomfortable silence followed my question. Out of the 4 technology companies present, only 1 tech company employed “nurses” as healthcare liaisons. 

The ‘disconnect’ the panel was discussing can possibly be due to having very little patient care experience as well as empathy for the patient. The lack of empathy in technology design doesn’t exist because the people who write algorithms are heartless but perhaps because they lack the texture of reality outside the technology bubble. Patients tend to become numbers in the technology world, algorithms become the rules and reality becomes what the data says. And like a movie governed by cyborgs, humanity becomes extinct. 

What is Empathy?

Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings, and condition from his or her point of view, rather than from one’s own. Empathy facilitates prosocial or helping behaviors that come from within, rather than being forced, so that people behave in a more compassionate manner. 

Empathy can be learned. It doesn’t necessarily come from genes, but from mirror neurons in the brain. Mirror neurons are also responsible for the reaction of sports fans, who feel emotionally invested when their favorite sports team loses, evoking feelings as if they are a part of the game themselves. Human beings learn from other human beings and the mirror neurons may help individuals share emotional experiences of others. 

The Importance Of Empathy In Healthcare

Patients seek empathy from their healthcare providers. They want to connect at a deeper level to another human being. It advances humanism in healthcare.

Expressing empathy is highly effective and powerful, it builds patient trust, calms anxiety and improves health outcomes. Research has shown empathy and compassion to be associated with better adherence to medications, decreased malpractice cases, fewer mistakes, and increased patient satisfaction. Expressing empathy one patient at a time advances humanism in healthcare. 

Is Technology Disrupting Empathy In Healthcare

In an age where AI (Artificial Intelligence) and Robots are being developed to advance efficiency of healthcare, is empathy on the verge of being extinct? Is human touch being replaced by machines? 

Technology has changed the way healthcare professionals communicate with their patients. Patient exams are cut short to about 10 to 15 minutes, which makes it difficult to establish a connection. Computers on wheels create a physical barrier for nurses when they use them to administer medications and access documents; and smart phones that support patient interviews have replaced the opportunity for a nurse to physically be present and develop a rapport with a patient. 

Meanwhile, virtual reality games and experiences are often used to distract patients undergoing painful procedures, when in the past a nurse may have held the patient’s hand. Touch has historically been a big part of the nursing profession. It has been linked to the connection that releases the ‘feel-good’ hormone oxytocin which further contributes to bonding and connection. 

Nursing students today are being taught patient care in simulation labs due to a decrease in clinical placements and heightened awareness of ensuring patient safety. Some nursing students may never touch or take care of a real-life human being until they graduate from nursing school and become employed. 

Enhancing Empathy Through Storytelling And Communication 

Personal stories are powerful. When a person tells a story, they are able to connect with another human being. Even the simplest narrative can elicit an empathic response by triggering the release of neurochemicals like cortisol and oxytocin. 

Stories can also influence your patients in positive ways. I found this to be true in my own storytelling research producing and directing live storytelling shows. I also found it to be true when my Italian mother was in the hospital with a hemoglobin of 6 refusing a blood transfusion. 

“I had a blood transfusion, it’s not bad!” chimed in Penelope.

“Penny,” my mother’s ER nurse, who had Greek parents, connected with my mother as we were admitted into the ER. Her storytelling began instantaneously as she started to connect with us. She told us about how my mom reminded her of her own mother now deceased. How her mother was a proud Greek woman who showered her with hugs and attention. How her father was the epitome of health as he obsessively watched Jack LA Lane on TV and mimicked his routines.

As my mother started to resist the blood transfusion, Penny shared her own personal story. “I had an ulcer at age 55. It had been bleeding for a while and I was severely anemic. They transfused 2 units of PRBC’s in the ED which saved my life.” She also added:” You’ll feel much better once you get the blood.” And yes, not only did my mother and Penny develop a connection, but my mother also accepted the blood transfusion. 

Social interaction is the key to empathy. Including emotional needs of the patient in their care is imperative. The act of listening to our patient’s and using touch can increase oxytocin levels. Maintaining an active curiosity about patient’s lives is also important. Treating them as a whole human being and focusing on their mind, body and spirit with regards to their healthcare plan is key to fostering empathy.

Healthcare technology companies would benefit from employing healthcare providers and professional patients as consultants to better explain the patient experience. Empathy is pivotal in better patient outcomes, patient satisfaction scores, and fostering a deeper connection between healthcare providers and patients. Communication, active listening and sharing personal stories are all ways healthcare providers can practice empathy in patient care. 










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