Over the years, we have noticed one certain element that is constantly and increasingly being eroded from society, and one which is vital for healthcare professionals – empathy. Empathy is what allows us to feel secondhand emotions. It is what allows us to understand the pain of the person we’re talking to. It is what helps us broaden our horizons and look beyond the selfishness of our own personalities. It is what encourages community.
However, it is a sad state of affairs for us medical professionals when we look around in our work environment and see a stark absence of this vital trait. A trait which is necessary not just for the patient, but also for their attendants. A trait not just for our colleagues, but also for our juniors. I don’t blame doctors. They see this day in and day out. They see pain and they see death. They see hopelessness and they see tears. It’s only natural for a human mind to start getting desensitized when it is regularly overloaded with such strong emotions.
However, for the sake of a healthcare center being a source of comfort for the community, it is vital that this heart of empathy should always be kept alive and beating. The situation can’t just remain like this, where another man’s pain is just another day of work for a doctor. We have to understand these feelings beyond the simple labels of ‘disease’ and ‘illness’. It is necessary that we look at them in human terms.
And how can we do that? How can we, as aspiring healthcare professionals, become more empathetic? How can we see the person behind the sickness? Well, there are a few ways:
- Take advantage of empathy workshops.
In a perfect world, hospitals would hold regular workshops with the sole purpose of inculcating empathy in their professionals. Although this is not the world we live in, you can still hunt these down in your own community. Ideally, these workshops should be administered by clinical psychologists who can help us navigate through the business of human emotions. They employ several exercises which can help the audience recover their humanity after being desensitized.
- Follow and support at least one social cause in your free time.
I understand that this is particularly difficult for doctors with our long working hours. However, when people unite for a shared cause, it reinforces everyone’s individual expertise and humanity, and minimizes the differences that can divide people; as stated by Rachel Godsil (a law professor at Rutgers and co-founder of the Perception Institute, which researches how humans form biases and offers workshops on how to overcome them). The cause can be something as simple as working on a community garden. What matters is the sense of community.
- Start gratitude journaling.
Gratitude journaling is an amazing tool to help us find fulfillment in our own lives and it works wonders on the way we look at the people who have fewer privileges than us. Recognizing our own privileges will build empathy in us and make us want to give back to the ones who have not been so lucky. It can also better help us in walking in the shoes of other people and understand where they’re coming from. That, resultantly, will provide us with the tools to interact with them in a more humane way in our work environments.
- Fake it till you make it.
If you cannot be kind or if you find it hard to stir up empathy for someone on the spot, just focus on your smile. Smile at people. Smile a lot. Smile at everyone who comes to you, be it the patient or their attendant. A smile alone is enough to make the other person find comfort in your presence. Also, don’t forget the three magic words you should ask everyone. “How are you?” is a question which, if asked in a meaningful manner, can provide our subjects with the homely feeling they need from a hospital. It is ironic that this question is asked so little in the profession where it should matter the most. And this question doesn’t extend to patients, it extends to their attendants who’ve been awake and worried for hours while their loved one is getting operated upon. The whole ordeal is equally tough on them too.
- Finally, just listen.
Let people speak. Let your patient talk the entire gamut of their concerns out. Make them feel heard and important. Half the problem resides in their minds. If the head is satisfied, the body usually follows suit. As a friend of mine said, “There’s your entire medical knowledge on one hand, and your kindness to your patients on the other. Little do many people know that whilst the former cures, the latter heals.”
So I hope, with these tools, our professionals will start humanizing their patients instead of just treating them as cases. Only when we do so will our hospitals truly live up to their origins of their name; hospitality.