Oncology fellow at Duke University Medical Center, Jeremy Force, who had never met this particular female patient but, was assigned to stop by her room to discuss her decision to enter the hospice.
Having just attended a course on using empathy to benefit clinical outcomes through understanding patient stories, Force used new found skills to try and understand the emotional experience of this patient at a point where clinical skills were not going to cure her. As he listened intently, not always an easy thing to do as we so often want to ‘fix’ things, the female patient cried. She expressed that she was exhausted and worried about the impact her death would have on her two daughters.
Force acknowledged how hard what she was going through was during the 15-minute conversation they had and shared with her he also had two children and that the hospice was designed to provide her additional support. When he saw her a few day later in the corridor, this patient said to him, “You’re the best physician I’ve ever worked with,” Force remembers her telling him. “I was blown away,” he says. “It was such an honour.”
This story is a couple of years old but it is worth telling again as empathy in communication and the importance of listening to what I refer to in my empathy training as the emotional data to understand the emotional experience of another. Whether I am working with complaints and serious incident teams, patient experience teams, clinical frontline staff or those in leadership roles, it is the emotional experience that they are supported to hear, feel and understand. Missing this vital thing is to carry out often procedures in an exemplary manner, yet leaving someone feeling unheard and sometimes uncared for; the total opposite of what most in the healthcare system who go through rigorous training and grueling workloads, to achieve.
There is now such overwhelming evidence that has linked empathy to greater patient satisfaction, better outcomes, decreased physician burnout, and a lower risk of malpractice suits and errors. Understanding another’s experience is an important part of making a human connection. A human connection that not only supports and gives to the patient but supports and gives back to the medical staff.
Being a good healthcare professional means understanding people not just clinical skills, but I would argue too that being a good patient, requires understanding your healthcare professional too. Empathy is part of communication and communication is not one way. The doctor, for example, building an empathic human connection, allows for this to develop from both sides.
I experienced this from my GP who cared for me, and I do not use that word lightly, because that is exactly what I felt, cared for, when my adopted daughter died unexpectedly in the hospital, leaving me with many tormented questions. His clinical skills were needed to support me as a non-medical person to understand, but his recognition of my emotional experience was vital and communicated in words, body language time and his eyes.
I clearly remember one day, driving to the surgery in a grief-stricken haze. I actually don’t know how I got from my house to the surgery. I was then sitting in front of him in his room, barely able to string two words together. He started fairly clinically and then all of a sudden he stopped and just looked at me. I knew at this point he was seeing what I was feeling and he was not feeling sorry for me, but starting to empathise and feel with me. He saw that day, my torment, pain, sadness, shock. And the reason I know he saw these emotions was because he mirrored them back to me. His face started to change and he too had a look of torment, pain, sadness, and shock. Maybe for different reasons, but in that silent moment, I felt completely understood. It shocked me a little even to see myself reflected in his facial expression but gave me a huge sense of safety at a time that I felt I had little emotional safety to anchor myself too. It consolidated the trusting relationship I had with him as my GP. There are interactions you remember forever and this is one of them. A very good interaction in a very bad situation.
It’s part of why I do what I do now. Why I believe in learning through narratives and total openness and honesty. Yes, study after study is backing up the benefits of training empathy in healthcare, but alongside that, I have felt its benefits, just as Force and his female patient did.
Empathy: the POWER of understanding and imaginatively entering into another person’s feelings
Collins English Dictionary
The original source for Jermey Force story: https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/03/how-to-teach-doctors-empathy/387784/
To see more on the empathy training I do see: www.empathytrainingltd.co.uk