5 ways to show empathy in medicine

As medical professionals we often see people at their worst: battered and broken, bothered and in pain, no make-up, bad hair day, naked and too ill to even care about modesty. At those critical moments, in our patients’ hour of desperation, they hand over their lives to us … and the lives of their family. All that they are — they willingly place at our mercy. At times, burnout, and the day to day hustle of our profession – at no fault of our patients – may cause us to be somewhat apathetic, and minimize what the patient is feeling. We move on from room to room, call to call, then home to our loved ones; while our patients and their families are left reeling from the circumstances of their harsh reality. Where did empathy go in medicine? Are our patients merely a number, an insurance claim, a conversation over dinner, one too many charts we have to complete, or a cluster of diagnostic codes to us? A lack of empathy can negatively affect patient outcomes and quality of care. Our jaded persona could be the reason we miss important pieces of our patient’s clinical puzzle.

I remember an incident as told to me by a former colleague, Pam. She had been a seasoned emergency room nurse for years. Pam and I had worked in the ER together for a couple of years before she went back to school to become an Advanced Practice Nurse. Inspired by her, I would later go back to school and complete the same program. After completing graduate school, Pam went back to the love of her life, the ER. She had fallen in love all over again. But her honeymoon phase had been short-lived. She had begun to grumble and complain about the oh so familiar “frequent flyers” who visited the ER on a regular basis.

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