Paging Dr. Empathy
As an organization dedicated to building strong patient-caregiver relationships, we know that new approaches are necessary to help medical students develop and maintain the skills necessary to provide compassionate, patient-centered care (“Building Better Doctors,” October 30). Students are taught communications skills in the first two years of medical school. However, these skills are not reinforced later, when empathy has been shown to decline. One reason is that our increasingly fast-paced, technology-focused, and cost-conscious health care system does not place enough of a priority on compassion and empathy as fundamental elements of medical care.
To ensure that what students learn in medical school endures over time, our organization sponsors programs in hundreds of hospitals and other health care sites across the country that allow practicing clinicians to come together on a regular basis to discuss the challenging emotional and social issues that arise in caring for patients. What we have learned is that when caregivers are given the time and space to focus on their relationships with patients and families, they feel more compassionate, engaged, and energized. This, in turn, leads to better health outcomes for patients and less stress and burnout for caregivers.
Julie Rosen / Executive director, The Schwartz Center for Compassionate Healthcare
I am writing as a nephrologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a teacher at Harvard Medical School. I am also author of the book After the Diagnosis: Transcending Chronic Illness, which addresses the doctor-vs.-person divide, mentioned by Dr. Ishani Ganguli, that is built into medical training. This self-division easily becomes a chasm between the doctor and the patient, who can have clashing agendas over everything from diet to insistence on antibiotics. Bottom line, you cannot help patients negotiate illness without understanding their temperament, beliefs, and values. You need to meet them on their own ground and help nudge them toward self-care and self-improvement. Young doctors become frustrated with noncompliant or stubborn patients (forgetting their own foibles), but frustration and peremptory doctor’s orders will not work. Kindness, empathy, persistence – accompanied, if possible, by a healthy dose of humor – will.
Dr. Julian Seifter / Wellesley
I’d like to suggest that a group of interested clinicians discuss what interferes with “putting a patient first” in our daily activities. Such an activity is likely to be particularly useful in this time of health care reform. By identifying critical gaps in practice, delivery systems, and attitudes, we would do patients (and policy makers) a great service.
Dr. Lydia Mayer / Jamaica Plain
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