Empathy in healthcare is finally making a comeback
A doctor friend – let’s call her Anne – was teaching three smart medical students who were told to diagnose a woman complaining of nonspecific pain and anxiety. After 20 minutes of questions, the students wrote seven pages of notes and recommended two drugs: a painkiller and an antidepressant. Anne considered the students’ analysis and agreed that it was based on sound medical evidence. But something told her there was more to the story.
She sat beside the patient, asked general questions and listened carefully. After a few minutes, the woman broke down in tears and told her about a personal tragedy involving a family member. After some comforting, the woman’s tears, shoulder pain and anxiety went away. Anne’s dose of empathy cured the woman, without the need of resorting to drugs. This is an important consideration, given that even relatively mild painkillers may contribute to the opioid crisis as some patients subsequently seek stronger and stronger drugs.
The high value now placed on good empathic communication in medicine is relatively new. Until the 1970s, the doctor-patient relationship was often paternalistic. An anxious patient was less likely to be given a shoulder to cry on and more likely to be given a prescription for Valium (“mother’s little helper”).
In the best enactment of the paternalistic doctor, the fictional surgeon Sir Lancelot Spratt, in the 1969-70 British TV series Doctors in the House, tells a patient who has become distressed at being diagnosed with a serious tumour: “This is nothing whatsoever to do with you.” Colleagues tell me that the scene is an accurate depiction of how things were. At that time, there was little if any communication skills training. Many doctors believed it was an innate skill that could not be taught.
From an article in The Conversation by Jeremy Howick, Director of the Oxford Empathy Programme, University of Oxford
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