I had the distinct pleasure of attending the IUPUI Last Lecture Series today by Dr. Richard Frankel entitled “Empathy May Not Cure Disease, But It Can Alleviate Suffering on Both Sides of the Stethoscope” – it was A-Maz-Ing! He spoke from his heart and his head – weaving his personal journey with his research career on the impact of empathy – the whole audience was tearing up! (Wish I’d brought some kleenex)
To understand how empathy can alleviate suffering, one must understand what empathy is. Merrium-Webster says it is “the ability to share someone else’s feelings.” In truth, there are a lot of definitions of empathy, but as United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart stated so perfectly – “I know it when I see it.”
Dr. Frankel pointed to Dorothea Lange’s Iconic photo from 1936 of a destitute migrant worker with her children. . .
I mean seriously – look at this woman’s face – how can you not empathize with the pain and suffering she and her family are experiencing?! Well, apparently not all of us are as good as we would have thought with recognizing emotions or expressions. One large study revealed that up to 2/3rd of American’s cannot recognize anger. Soooo, maybe some of us need to practice and to learn how to empathize with others.
Then we have to translate the empathy that we feel into “empathetic communication.” Now, this can be hard! As physicians, we are trained to gather data, interpret information, make a differential diagnosis, decide upon a plan of action, explain and enact said plan with the patient/caregiver ~ sometimes with only 15 minutes allotted per patient encounter. Nowhere in there were we taught how to elicit emotions and feelings from our patients and then respond thoughtfully and with genuine empathy.
For those of us not innately attuned with empathy we might need to “fake it til we make it” – – Sometimes you have to start by mimicking the empathy (even if it feels uncomfortable). It will eventually become ingrained and part of your emotional intelligence after you experience the benefits of expressing empathy with your patients, friends, families – everyone!
As Dr. Frankel explained it – we need to bring humanism to medicine. Expressing empathy has the potential not only improve the lives of our patients when they feel that we are truly hearing them and caring for all of their needs; it can also improve our lives as physicians. It can offset the emotional burdens that we carry around and are sometimes scared to face head on. We are all in this together, with the same goal – be good doctors and take good care of our patients. How can you use empathy to improve your interactions with patients or other providers?
* I will post a link to the lecture as soon as it becomes available! It is totally worth it!