How to Empower Healthcare Support Staff to Show Empathy

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hospital healthcare famility buildingNo Stranger to Healthcare Facilities

As the mother of four wonderful children (one of which has “special needs”), I’m no stranger to healthcare facilities of all varieties and specialties. My youngest son suffered an anoxic episode at the age of three-months, resulting in a brain injury, and leading to a diagnosis of Epilepsy, Cerebral Palsy, and overall severe developmental delay just to name the top three. He’s six years old now and we still heavily rely on his healthcare team (a.k.a., fan club) on a consistent basis. We’ve been known to frequent the local Emergency Room while on vacation, all of my contacts listed under “favorites” in my phone are healthcare professionals, and my gratitude towards those in the healthcare field runs deep. My husband and I are indebted to so many who have selflessly cared for our children over the years.

Growing up with asthma and a whole slew of allergies, I can’t contribute my entire healthcare experience to my children’s ailments alone, but they definitely promoted me to the top of my career as a professional patient. Literally, managing my children’s healthcare (particularly my youngest’s) is my job. My hope through this series is to provide some insight from the patient perspective in a way that helps, encourages, and maybe even educates your healthcare team.

doctor making notes at her deskJust a Number

Just this Monday, my son had a routine, three-month appointment with one of his neurologists at a large, renowned hospital here in town. Like healthcare facilities all over the world, COVID-19 regulations were put in place last year and this particular establishment had a strict policy of only one parent/individual per patient. Upon receiving the text reminder last week regarding the upcoming appointment, it occurred to me – my other children are out of school for the summer and I will have my oldest child with me the day of the appointment. I picked up the phone to call the healthcare facility to inform them ahead of time. The conversation went like this:

“Hi, my son has an appointment with you guys next week. My children are out of school for the summer now and I will have to bring my oldest child with me. I wanted to let you know in advance.”

“Ma’am, only one parent per patient is allowed,” the receptionist quickly reported.

I understand the policy,” I replied. “However, my son needs to see his physician and I’m a parent of four children. I have coverage for two of my children, but my oldest will need to attend the appointment with me. Is there any way an exception can be made?”

She then offered this solution, “Can you hire a babysitter?”

I answered with a bit of frustration at the audacity of her question, “No, that’s not a viable solution. And frankly, I find this whole conversation extremely off-putting. Understanding there are policies in place, I found coverage for two out of four of my children and I called ahead of time to inform you my oldest child would have to accompany me.”

I hung up the phone feeling like a number being shuffled in the corral of a large establishment. The conversation demonstrated an unwillingness to help resolve the problem or even empathize with my scenario. The responsibility to simply “figure it out” fell on my shoulders, at my expense. While I understand the receptionist is not responsible for implementing or amending policies, the experience in its entirety pointed to a deeper issue of a lack of empathy for the patient.

Empathy at all Levels

NBCI quotes Rosen J. Schwartz in their article on the subject of delivering compassionate healthcare, “Compassion is the foundation of good medical care. It recognizes the concerns, distress and suffering of patients and families and taking action to relieve them. It is based on listening, respect, empathy, communication, interpersonal skills, and knowledge and understanding of the patient’s life and preferences. At its core, it means treating patients as people, not just illnesses.” The article goes on to explain, “When empathic communication and compassion exists, clinical teams are more effective, morale is higher, patient safety and satisfaction is higher, and fulfilling the organizational mission is more likely.” (1) I would add, from the patient perspective, empathy is a requirement for all aspects of the appointment from the front desk staff, to the exam room. Treating patients with empathy and compassion, expressing an understanding and concern for their life and human-ness, is crucial.

Not Just the Warm Fuzzies

Research psychologist, neuroscientist, and author of The War for Kindness – Jamil Zaki provides his insight on the matter in his article for The Lancet, “The Caregiver’s Dilemma: In Search of Sustainable Medical Empathy.” He writes, “Once viewed as a fuzzy soft skill, empathy is now regarded as a key element in effective medical treatment.” (2) When defining empathy, he writes, “Psychologists largely agree it is best considered an umbrella term that describes related but distinct ways people respond to others’ emotions. These include emotional empathy—vicariously sharing others’ feelings—cognitive empathy—inferring what others feel and why—and empathic concern, also referred to as compassion—a desire for someone else’s wellbeing to improve.” (2)

A Sustainable and Connective Empathy

He differentiates empathic concern versus emotional empathy and writes, “Emotional empathy—especially taking on others’ distress—is a risk factor for burnout and fatigue among physicians, but empathic concern may help reduce the risk of those same negative outcomes. In other words, caregivers need not choose between their own wellbeing and empathy for their patients. If they can feel for patients and families without feeling as they do, empathy can be both connective and sustainable.” (2) It’s easy to understand how healthcare professionals can become burnt-out or emotionally disconnected – Zaki illustrates their role as being in the “trenches” of empathy. Healthcare professionals are often victims of secondary trauma like PTSD, compassion fatigue, emotional numbing in the face of suffering, burnout, and general exhaustion and loss of meaning.

Grow on Purpose

Zaki goes on to encourage his readers, by explaining that caring for patients empathically is a skill that can be acquired with some intentionality. He writes, “People often assume that empathy is a fixed trait, baked into our genes and hard-wired into our brains. In fact, it is more like a skill. Empathic ability is partly genetic, but our experiences also shape how we empathize. Crucially, this means that through the choices we make and habits we adopt, people can purposefully grow, broaden, and fine-tune their capacity for care.” (2) He offers several strategies on how to improve empathy such as role-playing, perspective exercises, contemplative practices, techniques on how to reduce personal distress, ways to increase generosity, and training on how to decipher what others are feeling.

At the end of the day, it all points back to what we ingrain in our children as they learn about appropriate social interaction: treat others how you want to be treated. Our humanity is the one thing we all have in common. Remembering that patients are people and intentionally treating them with an understanding and concern for their unique life circumstances can make all the difference.

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Thank you!

Jerry L. Stone
MedicalGPS, LLC



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