Communicating Empathy to Patients and Family Caregivers

When Patients Feel Personal Connection They Feel Care is Better

Empathy comes from the heart.. John Woodcock

Have you ever been a patient? It is stressful, full of anxiety. Patients feel real fear and terror. They are often confused and uncertain. Communicating empathy to caregivers and patients makes them feel providers have a personal connection and in turn they feel the care is better.

How healthcare staff members communicate by proxy is a reflection on the overall organization.

In short, if we put ourselves in the patient's position we can make them feel better.

When my mom for example came to live in an independent living complex, we struggled to find the activities that would make her happy and engaged. Sure there were things she could occupy herself with but her real passion and connection to the life she lived before coming to this place was dancing.

Only when the staff came to find out more about mom, putting themselves in her shoes, were they able to design activities meaningful for her.

Teaching Empathy

Patients can tell the difference when someone is making a connection or not.

Let's get back to my mom.

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.

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 recent 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.

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.

Emotional Intelligence

Putting yourself in another’s shoes is the basis of empathy. And the foundational elements of empathy is what has become the emerging field of Emotional Intelligence (EI).

Emotional intelligence has four components.

  • Self awareness: your understanding of your strengths and weaknesses, your purpose in life, your values and motivations, and how and why you respond to situations in a particular way.
  • Self-management: how effectively we manage our own emotions, and how well we control our responses to new or challenging situations.
  • Social awareness: how we manage the emotions of others. 
  • Relationship management: (social skill) is our ability to apply emotional understanding in our dealings with others.

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