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Empathy crucial to success in healthcare system

July 17th, 2014

by Sherri Loeb

As I reflect on my daughter Jennifer's first few weeks as a new intern in internal medicine, I can't help but look back at my experience with my husband during his battle with prostate cancer and think that perhaps there still is some hope for empathy, transparency and honesty.

Jennifer also witnessed her father throughout his illness through the lens of a loving daughter, as well as that of a medical student. At that time, I hoped what she learned not only through this experience, but for many years of discussions at the dinner table, she would carry on into her own practice as a physician.

Recently, I read a blog written by a physician who experienced first-hand what it was like being a patient. As H. Lee Kagan, M.D., writes, "There is no better lesson for a doctor than to be a patient." Later, he writes, "I wouldn't wish misfortune on anyone as a lesson in empathy. But as I get into the later stages of my professional career, it's become clear to me that one's capacity to empathize grows with life experience. Though there are exceptions, I believe there's only so much most healthy twenty-something-year-old medical and nursing students can know about loss, incapacity, disappointment, betrayal and triumph that make up the fabric of life within which illnesses play out. So we help as best we can by teaching skills, sharing stories and by setting examples at the bedside and in clinics."

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My hope is that my husband and I did that with our daughter as well, and at this point, I feel confident that we did.

Although some research shows empathy can be taught, I am not convinced. I am more inclined to believe that empathy is inherent in certain individuals. Perhaps it is both. What I can say confidently is, we have to start teaching empathy before students get to medical school.

My daughter relayed numerous encounters with her patients that she had during the past several weeks. Although she tried to always lend the empathetic ear and do what is right, she is continually held up by either a patient who doesn't want to listen, or a system that doesn't have the means to do what's right.

When Jennifer called me after her first full week as a resident and gave me a general recap of her experience with her patients, I was struck at how much honesty, transparency, and yes, empathy she displayed. When she mentioned calling a patient at home on a Friday night with the results of a routine normal pap smear, since she knew how important it was for results to be communicated to patients in a timely manner, I knew that she would be an empathetic physician.

Did she learn it or was she born with it? That's the million-dollar question. She has only practiced for a few weeks, but I can tell by her conversations with her patients that she treats each one with empathy and compassion, and sincerely cares about their treatment plan. She discusses options and uses shared decision-making to develop a plan of care with them that suits their individual needs.

The care of patients is at a tipping point, and the new generation is what we need to focus on. Healthcare professionals have to understand that each interaction can make a difference in someone’s life--not only physically, but also emotionally. A patient's experience can make or break the entire outcome of ones interaction with the medical profession. We have to find a way to engage the patient in their care. Only then will we be able to change how a patient experiences their part of the healthcare journey. That experience is important both clinically and financially to healthcare systems.

Kudos to Kagan, my daughter and to all those in healthcare who, whether it be by experience, teaching or just innate behavior, practice empathy, kindness, honesty and transparency as they provide care to patients. If all medical professional knew how to do this and followed the necessary means to provide it in a safe atmosphere, we could help tip the healthcare spectrum back in the right direction.

Sherri Loeb, R.N., is patient engagement strategist at Emmi Solutions. She is a member of the Patient and Family Advisory Council for Quality and Safety for MedStar in Baltimore, as well as a member of the National Quality Forum.

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