Empathy In Health

In my recent hospital stay due to appendicitis, I was able to view certain aspects of “hospital life” through the eyes of a patient.  As a patient we put our trust (and our lives) into the hands of the doctors and nurses who help treat and care for us.  When I initially went to the emergency room for the pain in my abdomen, the doctor did the oh-so-horrifying test of pushing hard on my abdomen and releasing fast to see if this caused any pain. Well, since I had appendicitis, it did – and it brought a few tears to my eyes. Partly because it hurt and partly because it scared me to know that I was inevitably going to end up having surgery and having to stay in the hospital for a few days.  After the tears ran down my face, the ER doctor took my hand and said to me “I’m sorry you are in pain and I know you are scared, but everything is going to be fine and we are going to take good care of you.” While I was still hurting and still scared, knowing that this prestigious man who I’m sure had been doing this for years and has seen much worse than me and my sad little appendix, still cared enough to take my hand and make me feel safe and cared for, made me feel a little better.

stock photo : Two doctors with a patient

Fast forward to the next morning just before my surgery and my meeting with my surgeon.  The difference between these two doctors was astounding. The surgeon came in, looked at my chart, asked if I was Melinda, said “We will start shortly”, and walked away. He did not make eye contact, he did not introduce himself, he did not make me feel safe, and he did not bother to stick around and answer any questions I had. As soon as he was there, he was gone. I was about to be wheeled into surgery and I still had no idea if I was getting sliced open or if my surgery was going to be done laparoscopically.  Thanks to the nurse who was in the ER, I learned it would not be done laproscopically, but I was in fact going to be sliced opened. My next questions was why and I was told that was something I should have asked my surgeon when he came to see me. Oh, you mean that nice man who didn’t even bother to make eye contact with me? Well, I would have if he bothered to stick around for more than 30 seconds.

stock photo : Mad mental sick blood soiled surgeon with knife

Perhaps the ER doctor had more experience working with patients who were awake and not ready to go under the knife and this was the reason he was so much more caring, but if you ask me, I could have used some sympathy from my surgeon. This led me to wonder if empathy in doctors is a dying art form.  According to an article in the Chicago Tribune, many of the future doctors “begin medical school with empathy for their patients but gradually learn detachment, perhaps in order to cope with time constraints or sadness.” (http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2008-10-12/features/0810080281_1_empathy-doctor-patient-non-verbal)

So is anything being done to encourage or educate physicians when it comes to showing empathy? In the same article in the Chicago Tribune, it is stated that “Allan Hamilton, a neurosurgeon at the University of Arizona, uses horses and horsemanship exercises to teach medical students the importance of non-verbal communication and the value of good patient-doctor relationships. Horsemanship comes into play, he said, because it requires the understanding of body language and sensitivity.”

While it has been called to attention that lack of communication and empathy on the doctors part, Dr. Hamilton seems to be a loner in striving for better doctor/patient relationships.  I think that starting now, even the most renowned surgeons should be required to attend sympathy seminars, or something of the sort. Hospitals need to set up a program that their physician and surgeons are required to participate in that shows the need for empathy on their parts. Even if it’s just once a year.

In a week I go to for a follow up to see my surgeon. Maybe then I will get all of the questions I had before my surgery answered. Maybe three weeks after I was operated on, I can feel the relief I was looking for before I went under the knife.

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