Genuine Empathy

I have a lot of respect for people within the medical community who have knowledge and expertise in their field; however, there is something else that I believe is quite valuable to patients. That is genuine empathy. I have worked in the medical field and I understand that it isn’t a good thing to get too attached to patients or doctors and nurses and other medical staff would probably lay awake every night worrying about the patients they have seen. It is a balance but it is possible to be attached while in a medical setting and not so close it takes over your life outside of work. Clinical empathy is a must but that isn’t the same as real genuine empathy and it seems that many times people in the medical community lean toward clinical detachment instead.

It is ok to feel and to show genuine empathy to a patient. I once had a hairy chested man ask me why I was cringing when it was his chest that I was pulling the EKG pads off of. I felt silly (I didn’t even know I was making a face but I knew it was going to hurt) but we both had a good laugh about it and he knew I cared and didn’t want him to feel pain. I took in patients that were angry and stressed, they felt that their symptoms were being ignored. Just listening and letting them know I believed them helped them so much. I didn’t always understand their exact pain but I knew they weren’t feeling cared for emotionally. In the office things were always hurried, there were other patients to be taken in and I didn’t want to keep a doctor waiting but I always found time to do my best to at least let them know I saw them as more than their symptoms. Patients lives matter. Patients are human beings. People in the medical community are also human beings and I believe that many of them do feel for their patients but it’s so ingrained to be sure to stay a bit detached that these people have forgotten what it is to show genuine empathy.

In school people are taught what to do to show a patient that you care but in my opinion if you shouldn’t even go into the medical field unless you care about people to begin with but that’s probably best saved for another post. For now I will try to stick to what originally prompted me to write this one.

Rich hasn’t been feeling well for almost a week. He’s lost 7 pounds already and we were told today to wait another 72 hours for a lab test to be completed. I’m afraid he may become so dehydrated he’ll end up in the hospital before then. He’s upset and angry and so am I. He called the doctor on Wednesday (after waiting two days to see if it was just a “bug”). They said call back on Friday if it got worse so here we are now, on Saturday, getting a test done, that could have been done on Wednesday, waiting another 72 hours.

What hurts me the most in all of it is that Rich feels no one really cares that he may be having a side effect to the immunotherapy he is on. The people he’s talked with and the nurse today have been pleasant but the fact that he feels that they don’t care then clearly genuine empathy has not been shown. To be clear, I’m not saying that I believe they lack empathy but what I am saying is that it wasn’t expressed in a way that left Rich feeling cared about. I have similar feelings about it and I have spent most of the day trying to put myself in the shoes of these people to try to understand why things are the way they are.

It’s proven that patients get well more quickly when they feel people care. Patients become more patient, staff and medical practitioners don’t have angry patients taking their frustrations out on them. Genuine empathy helps patients as much, or maybe even more, than medicine yet it’s hard to come by when you are a patient and I wish there was a way to change that but I don’t know how.

In the case of this week with Rich I’ve been thinking about how things could have been done differently. We may still have had to wait 72 hours but what would have made us feel differently than we do right now? First, when he called about the issue on Wednesday if they listened maybe they could have ordered the test that day or at least explain why they said “call back Friday if it’s worse”. What was the purpose of the wait and see approach when it had already gone on for 2 days. The lab didn’t get the order from the doctor and they closed before Rich got a call back from the doctor. I understand people want to go home but maybe even telling him labs that would still be open? Anything just so he felt understood and had another plan of action. When we did go to hospital lab and we were told to wait 72 hours the nurse did explain it takes that long for the test but there was no empathy expressed when I told her how Rich was losing a lot of weight and how tired he is. I didn’t expect her to gush but I wished she wasn’t so blasé about the whole thing. She just said “well if he gets a fever go to the ER”. Perhaps even a simple statement saying “sorry, this has been a rough week for you. We are doing all we can right now. I wish it could be done more quickly too”. Anything other than “if it gets worse call or go to the ER or as the lab said “we will be closing at 11”.

I’m very worried about Rich but I’m just as angry about the way this has been handled and the way he has been treated. He has cancer but he is a human being and he (and all other patients) should be treated as such.

The medical field needs to change. Detachment isn’t really an option if you really want to help patients (which I’d like to believe that most people do). Genuine empathy (not just clinical empathy) needs to be shown because no matter how awful a patients symptoms are it hurts even more to deal with a medical community where you don’t feel they really care about you. Genuine empathy is all it takes and there needs to be more of it.

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