THE BLOG
08/19/2014 12:09 pm ET Updated Oct 19, 2014

Empathy Needs to Be Part of the Medical Treatment

A friend of mine was recently hospitalized for complicated heart surgery. During the next few days following that surgery, there was a constant flow of hospital staff members coming to his bedside to check his vital signs, or his intravenous drip, or to adjust the window shades and refresh his water bottle. None of these people spoke to him other than a cursory good morning or afternoon. When his surgeon came in to check on him, he opened a laptop computer into which he entered information as he examined my friend's surgical sutures and asked various test questions to see if he was responding properly from the surgery.

In addition to residual pain from the surgery, my friend was worried about the future and could not sleep well because of all the interruptions. As the days passed, he became more and more depressed. While he seemed to be getting first rate medical treatment, nothing was being done to address his emotional needs. Not one person -- including his surgeon -- asked him how he was really feeling or let him know that they understood what he was going through. He was getting first rate medical care but he was not feeling cared for. What seems to be missing in this scenario is empathy, the ability to recognize emotions being experienced by another.

Empathy may not even be on the agenda in medical school or in hospitals. In fact, the word suffering was rarely used by clinicians and leading medical journals because it was considered overly emotional. Nevertheless, anxiety, confusion, and uncertainty, are what many patients endure while their bodies are being treated with the best science and technology. But within the collection of body parts to be examined, tested, probed, medicated, and operated on, there is a human spirit that is suffering. As health care becomes more corporatized, more like big business, it seems less humane. Hospitals are in the business of treating human beings -- their patients -- and that patient's satisfaction is becoming more important if the hospitals want to retain their funding. Some have tried sprucing up the décor and the menu, but they need to add empathy to the menu.

When empathy -- or lack thereof -- in health care makes Harvard Business Review, it's time for hospitals to take notice. Dr. Thomas H. Lee wrote in HBR, "Social network scientists have shown that emotions and values can spread in a community with the same patterns as infectious diseases." He believes that if empathy was stressed in health care settings, "We would see an increase in the proportion of clinicians and other personnel who are clearly tuned in to what was really happening to patients and their families." Hospitals that have embraced palliative care and include board certified health care chaplains on the interdisciplinary teams are filling this need. The role of these chaplains is to address the emotional and spiritual needs of the patients no matter their religion or lack of religion. But this practice needs to become universal in health care.

Cleveland Clinic has sponsored an Empathy and Innovation Summit (www.empathyandinnovation.com) for the past five years. These four day events in Cleveland attract people from all over the world -- physicians, nursing executives, CEOs and industry leaders. Their theory is that no health care provider can afford to offer anything less than the best clinical, physical and emotional experience to patients and families. Health care organizations exist because of the patient and doing the right thing means doing it with empathy and compassion.

The University of Utah hospital actual publishes ratings -- from one to five stars -- of all their physicians based on comments from patient surveys on their "Find a Doctor" website (www.healthcare.utah.edu/fad/). Like Yelp and Trip Advisor rate restaurants and travel destinations, here the patients are surveyed about the personal treatment they received from the staff with questions about whether or not the doctor made eye contact or showed concern for the patients' questions or worries.

Perhaps if every health care provider were to read Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird they would learn empathy from the main character, Atticus Finch. In a racially divided town in Depression-era Alabama, Atticus Finch defends African American Tom Robinson in a trial against a white woman who claims the man has raped her. Finch is among literature's most empathetic characters, and in what is perhaps the book's most quoted line, he says, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view -- until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."

We need people like that in health care, caregivers who have both brains and heart. And perhaps a new hospital CEO position -- Chief Empathy Officer.

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