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Empathy essential to provider-patient relationship

February 28th, 2014

by Darlene A. Cunha

Patient care is more than healing--it's building a connection that encompasses mind, body and soul.

When dealing with patients and families coping with illness, empathy is one of the greatest interventions a caregiver can bring forth. Trying to understand another's experience requires effort and intention.

People often equate empathy with sympathy. Sympathy however, is an awareness of another person's situation and is almost an automatic response--such as, "That's so terrible, I sympathize with you." Sympathy is important and is part of what humanizes a caregiver, but empathy is essential to a successful caregiver-patient relationship.

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Many studies on healthcare delivery conducted over the years have indicated that empathy is lacking. During my 34 years in healthcare, I have found this to be true. For example, we talk at patients, not to them. We look at our computer and not in their eyes, when we ask questions. We use an intercom to respond to a call light, rather than walk the few steps to a patient's room to assist them.

Technology, although necessary today, has widened the gap of real-time, hands-on responses to care, diminishing the importance of empathy in the care we deliver. Empathy should serve as the basis of all patient care and the cornerstone of the caregiver-patient relationship.

As the number of practicing clinicians continues to decline, we must select applicants that have potential to truly care for the sick. Medical and nursing schools must demand and emphasize inclusion of the caregiver-patient relationship in the standard curriculum. Students must be prepared for practice in a world full of challenges and change.

Our patients face increasing stresses outside of illness, including job loss, financial ruin, addiction and family crisis. These patients put their trust in their caregivers. We as caregivers must provide not only exceptional care, but also emotional support and genuine human kindness.

I can think of many barriers to empathy in healthcare today. Some of the most compelling include the lack of empathetic role models, negative clinical experiences, time pressures, fear of litigious action and an over-reliance on technology. We must find a way to overcome these challenges and cultivate, nurture and sustain empathy in all aspects of patient care.

Years ago, a patient could often be heard saying, "I don't care if my doctor/nurse has a poor bedside manner, as long as they are good at what they do." This is no longer acceptable. Today you can and must demand to have both. Everyone deserves to receive the best possible care with genuine compassion.

As healthcare embraces the patient-centered medical home model, the industry will put more emphasis on the way we interact with patients, families and each other. Every patient, regardless of ethnicity, age or race, understands two universal signs: a smile and genuine touch. Hold your patients hand, look them in the eye and let them know you care. Take a moment and sit by their bedside. Talk to your patient and their family, and truly mean it when you ask them, "How are you feeling today?"

Darlene A. Cunha, MMHC, BSN, RN is an accomplished senior healthcare executive, who focuses on population health management and the patient caregiver experience.

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