The Importance of Empathy in Medicine
Working in healthcare can be exhilarating, exhausting, frustrating, and incredibly rewarding all at the same time. As a physician, nurse, tech, EMT, or any other healthcare professional, you will doubtless see hundreds or even thousands of patients throughout your career. Unconsciously, we form patterns that make it easier for us to diagnose and categorize our patients. Serious traumas, life-threatening illnesses, psychiatric cases, drug addiction, sick patients—they all present differently. We are all unique, and, naturally, we relate to some groups more easily than to others. Despite this natural inclination, it is important that medical professionals empathize with all types of patients.
Empathy is a skill not sufficiently reinforced and encouraged in the healthcare field. I would argue empathy is essential to providing good quality care. For the 5-year-old with a terminal cancer, we generally have no trouble feeling empathetic, but the reality of medicine is that most patients are more complicated. Their medical conditions often result from a combination of lifestyle choices, emotional issues, socioeconomic factors and genetics. As healthcare professionals, it is essential that we do not judge these patients. We tend to attribute many medical conditions to poor choices, but in reality it is impossible to understand all of the factors that led an individual to his or her lifestyle choices, and it is equally impossible to exactly determine the cause of many medical issues.
According to the CDC, Obesity is becoming an epidemic in the United States, with over one-third of U.S. adults classified as obese. Its prevalence in our society, however, has done nothing to reduce its stigma. Obesity-related conditions like heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers are common, dangerous, and expensive to cure (cdc.gov). As medical professionals, we see the inconveniences that come with the condition. In the field as an EMT, these patients are harder to extricate, move, and fit on the narrow ambulance cots. In the hospital, these same problems and the added complications of treatment render obese patients, on average, more difficult than their non-obese counterparts.
This is where the importance of empathy comes in. These patients are common, and they, too, have real medical issues that need fixing. It is important to remember that these patients did not choose their condition. While obesity is no doubt enhanced by an unhealthy lifestyle, there are a variety of medical conditions that can lead to being overweight. Depression and other psychiatric illnesses also often play a role in obesity. The disease is also more common in certain populations, and particularly within lower socioeconomic classes.
It is important that medical professionals treat these patients with respect and with empathy. No one can know all of the factors that led to someone’s obesity, and while obesity-related conditions are expensive and all too common, we must fight the frustration. These patients often are aware of the inconveniences of their condition. Sensing judgment or agitation from their doctor, nurse, tech, or other care providers. may cause these patients to become less forthright about their symptoms. When this occurs, the patient-provider relationship may be irreparably damaged. In order to provide these patients the high quality care they deserve, we must empathize with them and resist judgment.
Another category of patients that are frequently admitted to hospitals and that sometimes do not receive the empathy of providers are drug addicts and homeless people. These patients are particularly common in emergency medicine. It is easy to grow wary of their problems, as they tend to follow similar patterns. These two categories of patients overlap frequently, and it can be difficult and frustrating as a provider to regularly treat the same patients for the same problems. Sometimes, patients will even call 911 to take them to the ER multiple times in a day, each time being released from the hospital shortly thereafter as their problems are often not medical in nature.
While these patients may often seek only a clean bed or to sober up, it is still important to treat them with respect. Drug addiction and homelessness, as with obesity, are caused by a variety of complex problems. It is difficult to imagine the circumstances of a person’s life that would lead them to this situation and it is important to attempt to understand. These patients should not be treated like leeches, consistently sucking a hospital’s time and resources dry, but rather as human beings who do need help, medical or otherwise.
As healthcare providers, it is our job to empathize with our patients and to determine if there is an underlying medical issue before dismissing these patients. Grouping them into the homeless or addicted schemata can be useful, but it is important to recognize that it can also be dangerous. Many of these patients have undiagnosed, or diagnosed but untreated, mental illnesses, and their psychological struggles should be taken seriously. These patients are in the hospital because they need help.
These patients, as with obese patients, can sense disdain or agitation from their healthcare providers and will tend to react negatively to this. It is essential that healthcare providers treat these patients with empathy and respect. We cannot understand their circumstances, and even if their problems are not medical and they indeed just seek a clean bed for the night, it is important that we ensure they are healthy, mentally stable and taken care of.
Patients are people. They are more than how they present medically, and they should be treated as such. For patients with inconvenient conditions, frequent visitors to the ER, and patients whose conditions we often view as preventable, we should work harder to be empathetic. We must cast aside our frustrations or irritation and understand that we do not and cannot understand the events and decisions that resulted in a particular problem for a patient. They need our care, our respect and our trust. They need our empathy and as healthcare professionals we are professionally and ethically obliged to give it to them.
- "Overweight and Obesity." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 5 Mar. 2018, www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html.