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Empathy in Healthcare: Take a Walk in Someone Else’s Shoes (or a Ride in their Wheelchair)

November 27, 2018

How important is empathy in healthcare? Let us count the ways.

It leads to better patient outcomes, and results in greater compliance and satisfaction on their part as well. It minimizes the mistakes made by healthcare providers and reduces the number of malpractice cases.

And here’s the thing: It can be learned.

Empathy, derived from the Greek empatheia (“emotions, feelings”), is defined by the Society for General Internal Medicine as the act of correctly acknowledging the emotional state of another without experiencing that state oneself.” Author/speaker Brené Brown said it is “feeling with people,” and one report noted that it is a form of Emotional Intelligence, falling under the category of social awareness.

In layman’s terms empathy is the ability to share feelings with another — to walk in their shoes.

It is central to how we operate at The Allure Group, a coalition of six eldercare facilities in Manhattan and Brooklyn. That stands to reason, since the very reason CEO Joel Landau founded Allure in 2011 was because he didn’t feel his ailing grandfather was getting adequate professional care late in life.

As a result, it is our aim to provide the best possible facilities. All six have been upgraded since ‘11, to the point that we now offer hotel-quality amenities while at the same time catering to the needs of residents from various backgrounds.

Our Longevity Garden, available at our Bedford, Hamilton Park and King David Centers, is geared toward our Asian residents, the Romashka Gardens Program (also at the King David Center) toward those of Russian heritage, Salud Latina (at Crown Heights) toward those of Hispanic descent and Glatt Kosher (King David, Bedford) toward those of Jewish heritage.

On a day-to-day basis we strive to dispense the best care possible. To that end we seek out healthcare professionals capable of fulfilling our mission, surround them with like-minded co-workers and place them in an upbeat, productive environment. That in turn compels them to provide the best care possible.

We are well aware that the mere act of seeking out healthcare is stressful, no matter how serious one’s condition might be. Even happy events at the hospital, like the birth of a baby, cause tension; there is paperwork to complete, for instance, and the cost of care to consider. It is indeed a daunting task to achieve something that one report identified as “healthcare literacy” — i.e., reaching an understanding of byzantine (and ever-changing) healthcare policies.

An empathetic healthcare provider is, however, eminently capable of putting a patient’s mind at ease. A 2012 study in Italy revealed that diabetes patients treated by doctors who showed a greater degree of empathy experienced far fewer complications, and another study concluded that empathy exceeded even pain control as a barometer of patient satisfaction.

It is a two-way street, too. By showing greater empathy — by really listening — a healthcare provider can become better at his or her job. That extends to the C-suite as well. A manager would do well to understand how decisions made on that level affect clinicians, and our COO, Melissa Powell endeavors to do just that. As is the case for those in The Allure Group’s upper management, who visit every facility, each and every week. We touch base with staffers and residents. We ask questions, and field them as well.

We believe this boots-on-the-ground approach is the best way to ensure that our mission is being carried out, and that any potential issues are nipped in the bud. We want to connect with our staff and residents. We want them to know we hear their concerns, that no detail is too small.

Alas, empathy is not always in great supply across the healthcare industry. There are many reasons for that, the first being that there are those who are too wrapped up in their own affairs to pay attention to the thoughts and feelings of others.

Then there is the time element, which is of increasing concern in the healthcare realm, where facilities are often understaffed and providers stretched to the limit. Third is our own self-esteem, and whether we let negative thoughts about ourselves hinder our ability to consider others’ concerns.

Finally, there is our personal history with another person, and whether we allow that to get in the way of our interactions.

Again, however, empathy can be taught. A medical student named Mazie Tsang reached that conclusion while studying at the John A. Burns School of Medicine in Hawaii five years ago.

In the course of her education, she noted, she was reminded of the importance of establishing a rapport with patients — of using the Hawaiian custom of the “talking story.” She and her fellow students were also asked to write about personal illness, and some students were required to experience what life was like for patients by doing things like wearing casts on their arms to simulate fractures.

And finally, students were encouraged to achieve balance in their life, through proper nutrition, exercise and socialization.

She wrote that she put all that training to good use when working with a recovering alcoholic, and presumably continues to do so now, as an internal medicine resident at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

The conclusion to be drawn, then, is that empathy can be learned. And indeed, that it must be.

Categories: General