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The care experience needs empathy

April 2nd, 2014

by Anthony Cirillo

By now you have probably read about my saga.

  • Dec. 17: my wife's brother passes away; my sister is diagnosed with cancer
  • Dec. 31: my daughter has baby boy, Adam Joseph
  • Jan. 15: my sister passes away
  • Feb. 7: my son has baby girl, Skylar Olivia
  • Feb. 22: my mom moves into an independent living residence near me in North Carolina
  • Today: try to get back to a "normal" life

Part of settling mom into her new residence was arranging for her first visit with a new primary care physician. Here is a little bit about how it went: The physician looked over her records before coming into the room. At 92, mom has a litany of ailments and medications, but using a walker has been her only compromise in recent years. When the physician entered, he quickly dispensed with the clinical aspects of her care.

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Then he knelt down on the floor so he could be at eye level with mom, all 4 feet 10 inches of her sitting in a chair--and he simply asked how she was doing. At this point he did not know the story of how she got there. My wife and I listened intently in the corner of the room as mom told him about my sister's passing and how she was still grieving, how she could not believe her first born was gone and how she still thinks she will walk into her apartment again.

It was all I could do not to lose it--in that moment I realized I wasn't as empathetic to my mother's situation as I could have been. I was in a hurry to get her out of Florida and to North Carolina so we could resume our lives. And while I was grieving too, I just expected her to go along with the program.

"Empathy is a miracle that improves the quality of care." That is a quote from my friend Arden Brion, reflecting on his own healthcare experience a year or so ago. That made what the physician did next remarkable. He did "nothing."

What I mean is that after listening to my mother, really listening, he said (and I paraphrase): You know what? Your health is as fine as it can be. I don't want to see you for three months. Go back to your new community. Get acclimated. Meet new friends. Start new routines. Grieve and rejuvenate.

I was happily dumbstruck. Because this physician got it. He understood the human experience. Not the patient experience. The human experience. He took it all in. He understood what mom was going through. He understood what my wife and I were going through. He was empathetic. And then he did absolutely, perfectly nothing and everything at the same time. He gave us all a chance to breathe and to reset.

It's the human experience. And really isn't that the essence of what a person-centered medical home should be? If more caregivers looked to provide that experience, we might actually humanize medicine again.

Anthony Cirillo, FACHE, ABC, is president of Fast Forward Consulting, which specializes in experience management and strategic marketing for healthcare facilities. He also is the expert guide in Assisted Living for About.com.

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