The Role of Empathy in Healthcare
By CareerSmart Learning Contributor, April 21, 2015, as published by Healthcare Hot Spot
In the midst of assessing, treating, and caring for patients, there is another element that promotes communication and patient wellbeing- empathy. Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another” and has been shown to be an important therapeutic skill for healthcare providers.
Empathy means being “in-feeling,” as in the emotional appreciation of another’s feelings. Simply put, it is “putting oneself in the shoes of the patient.” With this understanding, the clinician is better able to provide supportive interpersonal communication and engage in a more meaningful connection.
Empathy involves the ability to:
- (a) understand the patient’s situation, perspective, and feelings;
- (b) communicate that understanding to the patient and check its accuracy; and
- (c) act on that understanding in a helpful (therapeutic) way.
How does empathy differ from sympathy? Although both are acts of feeling, with sympathy you feel for the person, while with empathy you feel with the person, to the extent that you are putting yourself in the other person’s place so that you have a sense of what they are feeling. In order to be therapeutic we need to “borrow” these feelings in order to observe, feel, and understand the patient on a deeper level. By “borrowing” these feelings we do not take them onto ourselves, an act that would exhaust the clinician.
So, how can we be more empathetic with our patients?
- (1) Listen – truly listen. Be present.
- (2) Pause to imagine how the patient might be feeling; actively imagining is one of the cornerstones of showing empathy.
- (3) Withhold judgment. Try to gain a deeper understanding of someone else’s perspective without immediately labeling it as “bad” or “good.”
- (4) State your perception of what the patient is feeling. (For example, “I can imagine that must be…” or “It sounds like you’re upset about…”) This helps validate the accuracy of your perceptions.
- (5) Offer support and partnership. (For example, “I’m committed to work with you to…” or “Let’s see what we can do together.”) This promotes a sense of collaboration and support.
Fortunately, the skills of empathy can be learned, practiced, and developed. It all starts with the willingness to “put on someone else’s shoes.”
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