Cultivating empathy in healthcare

Cultivating empathy in healthcare

This article has reminded me of my own passion for cultivating empathy in those who provide healthcare, and those who influence policies that impact those in need.

Empathy has been defined as: “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.” Empathy is an essential step towards compassion, which motivates people to take action to meet others’ needs.

I’ve been working on cultivating empathy in healthcare providers for several years now through social media and in my teaching with nursing students. I believe that empathy is what makes the difference in healthcare delivery that is caring and directed towards what the care recipient sees as their greatest needs, rather than what we as providers believe they need based on our experience.

There needs to be a balance between our expert recommendations and people’s needs and values. We have seen so much research done in which we throw all of OUR expert interventions at people, at a very high cost, with no difference in their quality of life. We need to include what people need most and value as important to impact their quality of life. This is also essential to ensuring that they are satisfied with their care and motivated to integrate our recommendations into their lives. Patients expect that we are experts who know what we are doing. What they can’t count on is feeling that they have been heard, and that we really care about them. That will set us apart as providers. And to do that we must become more empathetic, and we must cultivate empathy in those around us, and in our organizations.

The first step is to make an ongoing, conscious effort to be empathetic ourselves.  To do this we must reflect on our own experiences and feelings, especially when going through hardships. We need to remember this rather than just blocking our feelings and moving on. We should also be open to sharing experiences with others and learning from them, which can cultivate empathy in others.

When we see others going through hardships, we should remember our experiences, and try to understand what they might be going through, though not assuming that we would ever truly know their experience- that requires asking them.

We must make a conscious effort to ask people about their experiences, with a humble, accepting and compassionate attitude. Yes, this may take time, but it doesn’t need to take much. A few key questions, being truly present with the person, can quickly build understanding and trust.

A powerful tool to cultivate empathy is this video, created by the Cleveland Clinic.

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