Are our busy doctors and nurses losing empathy for patients?
It is well known that when patients are treated with empathy and kindness, their recovery rates are higher and they have better outcomes. Patients who receive compassionate care are emotionally better equipped to heal faster.
What is empathy?
Empathy is the ability to see things from the viewpoint of the other person. It should not be confused with sympathy- which means feeling sorry for the other person (which patients certainly do not need!) Empathy is the basis of effective communication. By understanding where the other person is coming from, you can truly communicate with them and help them to get over their fears or misgivings related to their illness. Empathetic nurses are better able to comfort an elderly patient who does not have long to live- or grieve with a young mother over the loss of her son. By understanding how it would feel to be in the other person’s shoes, you can respond in the right way.
Why is there a lack of empathy in healthcare today?
Increasing costs of healthcare, coupled with fewer nurses and doctors, has necessitated shorter consultation times. This means that clinical empathy has fallen by the wayside as doctors feel the need to see more patients in a given time. There have been increasing complaints against healthcare professionals in Australia of late; with patients complaining of issues ranging from a lack of drinking water, to their toileting needs not being attended to….in more serious (but thankfully rare) cases, the neglect and lack of empathetic caring has even resulted in death of the patient.
Again, due to the advent of technology, empathetic care is on the decline. While technology has increased efficiency in patient care, this has come at the cost of empathy. For example, nurses in earlier times would check the pulse of a patient by physically holding their hand; nowadays however a probe is attached to the patient’s finger which constantly monitors the pulse electronically. This may result in heightened efficiency, but the emotional rapport that was earlier built up by just this small exercise has now gone. When their contact time with patients diminishes, nurses are no longer able to monitor their non-verbal communication and monitor signs of any distress or discomfort.
In the past, a nurse may have been required to tell jokes or otherwise distract a patient during painful procedures. Now, more often than not, the patient is hooked on to computer games or a video for distraction.
Even during their course of studies, nurses often learn procedures by practising on simulation mannequins, and not by practising on real patients. It is difficult to think of a mannequin as a patient with emotions; as a result students tend to focus on excelling in clinical skills but lose out on the need for building up a rapport with the patient. They lose the interpersonal touch right from the very start, and learn to perform procedures with clinical efficiency but without the human touch.
What is the solution?
Right from nursing college, students of Individual Support Courses must be taught good communication and personal interaction and should understand the effect of empathetic care on patient outcomes. Doctors and nurses should understand the very real need for empathetic and compassionate care coupled with excellent clinical skills. The simple act of listening to patients and watching over them personally pays rich dividends in their recovery.