Empathy in Health Care

By Barbara Ficarra, RN, BSN, MPA

TED speaker Rebecca Saxe inspired this post.

“The great gift of human beings is that we have the power of empathy.” These are heartfelt words by award-winning actress Meryl Streep.

Do we all have the power of empathy? Are we hardwired to know what other people want? Is it easy to think about other people’s thoughts?

Rebecca Saxe’s enlightening TEDTalk “How To Read Each Other’s Minds” asks: “Why is it so hard to know what somebody else wants or believes?” “Why is it so hard to change what somebody else wants or believes?” And “How is it so easy to know other minds?”

Saxe concludes her fascinating presentation by saying that people come well equipped to think about other people’s thoughts, and “we have a special brain system that lets us think about what other people are thinking. The system takes a long time to develop slowly throughout the course of childhood and into early adolescence. And even in adulthood differences in this brain region can explain differences among adults in how we think about and judge other people.”
Does this mean we’re all equipped to feel empathy?

Empathy is without a doubt a connection; but in health care, it’s much more. — Barbara Ficarra

Ad agencies are masters at engaging the audience and using empathy to elicit a response, to prompt consumers to take action, hoping they’ll buy what’s being sold. Attorneys are brilliant at selecting empathetic jurors or preparing the witness to connect with the jury.

Empathy is without a doubt a connection; but in health care, it’s much more. It’s not only a clinical and emotional connection; it’s truly about letting people know that they matter and that clinicians care about their patient’s well-being.

The emotional connection allows clinicians to be mindful of what patients are experiencing and to help understand their lives. Everyone has a story: the new mom in the hospital who is being treated for cancer is unable to hold and to be with her newborn, the son and dad who gave and received a kidney missed attending the college graduation, the grandpa who missed his granddaughter’s wedding because he was undergoing heart surgery. There are lives behind the patients. Lives interrupted and lives on hold. Understanding the how and why and what patients are feeling will allow for the doctor/patient and nurse/patient relationship to flourish, making better outcomes possible.

Underneath the diagnosis lies a patient with a life on hold on the outside. Patients’ lives stand still and they are bound by hospital walls, machines and devices. Every patient deserves empathetic doctors and nurses.

It’s important for clinicians to understand that patients are more than their “diagnosis.” Recognizing patients outside life exists, even just for a moment, is invaluable to them. All too often patients and their caregivers and family members are called “difficult” if they ask too many questions. Most of the time patients, caregivers, loved ones aren’t difficult, they are just afraid and want to know that they are being heard. They want a connection.

With empathy doctors and nurses can connect, engage and empower patients. Empathy allows us to understand what patients are experiencing. By acknowledging their emotional state and listening attentively, we can engage our patients and empower them to be proactive and in charge of their health care.

Empathy will foster trust, a partnership forms and the healing process begins.
So if we’re all well equipped to think about other people’s thoughts as Saxe concluded, doctors and nurses can think about their patients lives on hold and empathetically help them get back to their loved ones and back to their lives.

Barbara recently participated in TEDMED and was part of the medical communication team.

Ideas are not set in stone. When exposed to thoughtful people, they morph and adapt into their most potent form. TEDWeekends will highlight some of today’s most intriguing ideas and allow them to develop in real time through your voice!

Barbara was invited to write this piece for The Huffington Post.  The original Huffington Post  piece, Equipped for Empathy may be found here.  To read an op-ed from the TED speaker, Rebecca Saxe who inspired this post, you may find here, and you may watch the TEDTalk below.


Your turn

Are we all equipped for empathy?  Do you feel there is empathy in health care?  Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.  As always, thank you for your very valuable time and insights.


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