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Empathy In Healthcare: What Is It & Why Do We Need It?

  • Dr. Sreelekha Daruvuri
  • 3 Min Read

On a busy OPD day, a middle-aged alcoholic male visited the clinic for his health issues. An intern doctor evaluated the patient during which he started to narrate how he was recently laid off from his job which led him to self-loathing, despair, eventually alcohol-dependent. The intern tried to be empathetic by giving him full attention, responding with comforting words and asking relevant questions. In the end, the patient told that he was the first person with whom he had told about his trauma and he did so cause he felt the intern cared about his welfare and made him comfortable- adding a lifetime experience to the intern about the role of empathy in fostering a doctor-patient relationship, which the intern would never forget.

As a doctor, I feel empathy is an integral part of patient care and management. It also plays a crucial role in relationships, even patient- physician’s relationship, which has been backed by many studies. According to me, empathy is the cognitive understanding of a patient’s concerns and experiences with an ability to communicate the same and with an intention to help. For patients, empathy is when their feelings are understood and accepted by doctors who would recognise their concerns and tend to their emotional state

In simple words, empathy is to imagine what it is like to be in another person’s shoes.

Unfortunately, a lot of times healthcare professionals fail to understand each patient and consider them as disoriented human beings in a strange situation and with intense emotions. Despite the complicated demands on the health worker, it is important to have rational, emotional connect with each and every patient

The importance of developing empathy

A 70-year-old man with existing chronic health issues walked into the OPD. When the doctor asked about his medication, the old man became teary-eyed and said, “My wife took care of all the medication and she died last month due to COVID-19 complications.” Instead of acknowledging the patient, she kept enquiring about the medications. Later the agitated old man said, “Please do not mess up with the medication like you did the last time.” The doctor was helping the man with his illness but she failed to understand the agony that was worsening his condition.

We need to develop more compassion. All of us suffer at some points in our life and during those moments all we want is to be heard, to be cared for and to be loved. Most healthcare professionals think there is no time for empathy and the COVID-19 pandemic has made the situation worse. But if you look at it, how long does it take to say a few comforting words? 

Empathy is the medicine the world needs

As doctors, we need to understand patients have no plans of landing up in a hospital or be prepared to get admitted or hear about the new disease they would be diagnosed with. They are scared, battling and hiding emotions, thinking about their homes, the void created in their loved one’s life in the interim and innumerable questions thinking about the unfavourable outcomes. Empathy improves health outcomes as it enhances trust and the patient feels connected with the doctor. On the other hand, patients should empathize with the healthcare professionals as well. People should remember the constant sacrifices healthcare workers make to meet the health care demands of the people. 

There is no script or rulebook for empathy. There is no right or wrong way to do it. We just have to be genuine and simply be a good listener without passing judgment or giving unsolicited advice. The only thing the other person wants to hear from us is, “You are not alone, I am here for you and I am listening to you.

Keep in mind that what goes around comes around. When we show kindness, we will get kindness. Learning how to care and empathising will not only add value to our lives but will also allow us to excel in work and form meaningful, long-lasting relationships

Next time, when you connect with someone, take some time to #AskHowTheyReallyAre

A little care could go a long way.

  • Written by

    Dr. Sreelekha Daruvuri

General physician and medical author at MFine.

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