While empathy is key to all professions medical practitioners need to apply it in the first instance. Compassion, sympathy, care, kindness, pity et al come much later in the doctor patient relationship. Several studies have shown that “clinical empathy and related physician behaviors towards their patients are associated with multiple positive effects” , e.g.: better outcome in high blood pressure and heart disease, improved metabolic status in diabetic patients; better tolerance of pain in cancer, shorter duration and less severe course of the common cold ; improved physical and psychological health; better compliance and satisfaction of patients; enhanced patient enablement and coping; better information exchange between physician and patient; improved ease and accuracy of diagnosis; better clinical performance of students and physicians; and possibly more efficient resource utilization. Accordingly, medical associations in several countries agree that empathy is a desirable physician characteristic that should be developed and promoted in the medical college education. Unfortunately empathy is not included in the curriculum of medical education at any stage.
What is empathy?
It is the ability to step into the shoes of the other person aiming to understand his feelings and perspectives so as to take correct action on one’s own part. It is generally defined as the understanding of and identification with another person’s emotional state. Sympathy is a statement of emotional concern while empathy is a reflection of emotional understanding. It is also different from the theme ‘do unto others as you would have them do to you’. Empathy is required in all public dealing situations but is especially relevant in the field of medicine, where the successful treatment of patients depends on effective patient-physician understanding of each other. So it is a two way process. In order to be perceived as empathic, the observer must convey this understanding to the subject. a physician generally encounters a patient who appears non-communicative or depressed. Without understanding the nature and circumstances of the patient’s emotional state, it may be difficult for the physician to generate an empathic response. It is especially relevant for practicing physicians, for it indicates that it is not enough to know a large amount of factual information about a patient. The physician who understands each patient on a personal level stands a far better chance of experiencing and conveying empathy and treating the patient and illness effectively than the physician who does not care to listen to the patient or offer clinical examination. In everyday life, people who are poor communicators and cannot adequately express their feelings are misunderstood by people around them. So a doctor has to be a good listener as well as a good communicator.
Some argue that it is not possible for a physician to empathize with every patient—to do so would be emotionally draining and difficult under modern time constraints, with large number of patients in the queue. Yet there is increasing evidence that, when choosing a physician, patients value affective concern as much as, if not more than, technical competence . Each patient wants to be treated as a person, not as an illness, and wants to be reassured that the doctor understands the nonmedical aspects of his or her condition. Empathy is a necessary clinical skill. Research has shown that empathy is also useful on other levels; it has been found to be directly therapeutic by reducing anxiety in patients. Empathy is beneficial to physicians; doctors who are more attuned to the psychosocial needs of their patients are less likely to experience burnout. Enhancing observation skills should make it easier to detect a patient’s emotional state, while improving communication skills should help a physician convey his feelings to the patient.
Human is not a computer. A computer can read a list of signs and symptoms and give a diagnosis, but it does not have a range of experiences and cultural knowledge to draw on that would enable it to treat the person, as well as the illness. The empathic component of medicine is what makes a physician special; without it they are, in essence, highly trained computers.
It is important to understand that empathy is not necessarily a God given gift, it can be learnt by your own efforts, according to June 2015 issue of Reader’s digest.
1. We are not essentially selfish; we are also wired to empathy, social co-operation and mutual aid. If you decide to switch the part of the brain that carries empathy, you can do it.98% of us have the inherent ability to empathize.
2. Charity begins at home! Stop shouting at your spouse and try to understand him/her as to what he /she is trying to tell you or what it means. Be patient in listening and understanding.
3. 21st century should become the age of empathy-so it may sound, if you believe it. Imagine or practice the plight of others as your own. This understanding and experience of experiment will help you.
4. Have curiosity about strangers and communicate/converse with them and do not turn your back to them. Mutual help should always be practiced and welcome.
5. Some armchair thinking or imagination of a good and helpful world can help. Even books can bring a good feeling of empathy. Learn to climb in the inside of skin of the matter and walk around with it to have a good understanding.
6. Beyond individuals, empathy can bring a better society. Sow the seeds of empathy in the minds of children so that they become understanding adults and usher into a better society.