There seems to be lots of talk recently about empathy in healthcare. Perhaps we have come to realize that it may be the secret sauce that is necessary to connect patients with the people who care for them. Empathy could be the thing that closes the gap between how we view ourselves as caregivers and how patients perceive us to be. In a push for truly patient centered care, organizations are claiming it as part of their promised patient experience, their brand guarantee. But are they being honest with themselves?
Any time spent observing in a hospital setting and you are sure to witness plenty of sightings demonstrating compassion, caring, serving, kindness and helpfulness. But empathy is one that is hard to find. It is so different from other emotions that we have long associated with the care experience. Empathy is distinctive- it is a defining moment in time that patients (and families) can clearly put their finger on. If we can agree that empathy is the ability to understand another’s experience, to communicate and confirm that understanding and then act out of that understanding, then we agree that it is a process that is entered into that is intentional. One could go as far as to say that empathy is a 3-step process. First, a conversation takes place where the patient tells the caregiver how they feel about their present situation or the circumstances around their situation. Secondly, the caregiver confirms what the patient is experiencing, either in words, shared tears or a joint appreciation of common ground. Lastly, an action is taken to show the caregiver clearly understands that patient’s position. Compassion, on the other hand, is a way of being, something that is more of a constant. Empathy is an event and caregivers have to become the event planners.
How do we sort out time for empathy when there are endless tasks, documentation, phone calls, protocol, meetings and physical care to deliver? Patients will know that moment when you have connected emotionally with them. It may be just a phrase or a sentiment that you imparted to them. It may even be a question you ask and the way you listened intently when they answered. It may be the fact that you sat down with them and looked them in the eye, paying no attention to a computer, paperwork or the physical assessment as they tell you of their greatest concern about their diagnosis or hospitalization.
Here are a few questions to consider asking at your next staff meeting.
Are we intentional about creating an empathic encounter?
Are we willing to share a vulnerable side of ourselves?
How much of a priority do we place on empathizing with the patient?
Are we invested enough to establish common ground with the patient?
Are we ready to take the patient care experience to the next level? Let’s show it.