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Be Empathetic

By William Berry, MD, CRICO

Related to: Communication, Emergency Medicine, Primary Care, Nursing, Obstetrics, Surgery

In the day-to-day work of taking care of patients, it is far easier than we would like it to be to forget that there is a person on the other side of the care. Today’s medicine, with its decreased time to treat patients and increased demands for efficiency, promotes an “assembly-line” approach that can inhibit our humanity, our compassion… the reason we became doctors in the first place. A patient who rushes to the emergency room with terrible chest pain becomes “the stent.” The young child who comes to us with severe abdominal pain becomes “the rule-out” and then “the appy.” The confused elderly patient from the nursing home becomes nameless as she struggles with disorientation, which can leave her belligerent and difficult to communicate with.

Some of these “cases” end with a lawsuit being filed. And some of these suits have their roots in this depersonalization. Patients know when they’re being treated like “cases” and not like people. You would sense it too, if you were on the other side.

As caregivers, we depersonalize to keep ourselves from being distracted by the pain that our patients feel; it allows us to remain focused on giving them the medical care they need. And while this self “protection” may work in our favor, we need to make certain that the wall we build is not so high that our patients feel that we don’t care.

Even when things go terribly wrong, patients seem to find it very difficult to sue physicians who express concern and compassion for them. Alternatively, it seems very easy for patients to sue physicians who appear callous, distant, or indifferent.

The preventive here is empathy, letting patients know you understand and care… because you do.

June 1, 2006
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