Connection Leads to Protection
Empathy—it’s that ability to understand the feelings of others because we share something in common. At the most basic level, we all have something in common. Just living as humans gives us a primal knowledge of what it’s like to endure. From birth to death, certain physiological functions are sure to occur that cause us pain, fear, confusion, joy and peace. Falling as we take our first steps, that first trip to the doctor, meeting the love of your life, having a baby, losing 20/20 vision, the excitement of learning, a scary diagnosis, growing old. If you live long enough, you experience every facet of the human condition.
While we may not be able to relate to everyone who comes into our offices, it isn’t too much of a stretch to find something we have in common. Once we do that, the person before us isn’t just a patient anymore, but a fellow human being going through a situation that we know something about. There really isn’t a lot to be gained by putting ourselves on pedestals, above the normal challenges of living. But there is much to be gained by empathizing and letting our patients know that we know what it’s like. Not just from books, but because we’ve been there ourselves. Empathy builds trust and a trusting patient is much more likely to take our advice and follow our directions. This, for me, is the true essence of the practice of an Osteopathic physician.
Even if we have never experienced the exact same condition as our patient, we understand the feelings associated with a diagnosis, or uncertainty. We may even draw upon knowledge of a family member, friend or colleague who went through something similar. The degrees of separation between all humans aren’t really such a stretch.
Now, I am not, by any means, suggesting that we go into great detail about our circumstances or those of people we know. We don’t need to minimize a patient’s concerns or make the visit all about us. Instead, I’m suggesting that perhaps we can find a thread of empathy and show that we, in fact, do understand and relate. Giving comfort this way takes us off the pedestal and sets us squarely in the role of healer as human. Being empathetic allows us to step out of the restrictions imposed by a massive healthcare system, insurance regulations and medical lingo and lets us do what we became doctors to do—treat people.
Relational therapy and instruction work. Remember your favorite professor? If you’re like me, it’s the one who’d been there, done that. It was someone who told first-hand stories of therapies that worked, or how they walked a patient through a serious disease, crisis or end-of-life experience. Self-help and 12-step groups save countless lives based solely on sharing. The greatest friendships are based on shared experiences, tears and laughter. The most effective spiritual leaders aren’t afraid to share their own failings and how they found their way out of the darkness.
As we strive to live up to our ACOI values, to a practice of principled-centered medicine, an ingredient we can’t overlook is the power of empathy and how it can so seamlessly be woven into the way we deliver our services. Human to human, perhaps we can overcome the stigma of the doctor/patient relationship that too many people hold as us vs. them, causing patients too often to approach our relationship with negative expectations and fear. Steven Covey said, “When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That's when you can get more creative in solving problems.”
As members of ACOI, we connect with each other through this newsletter, our get-togethers, dinners and meetings. As your President, I get great joy from the relationships that come from my involvement, from sharing experiences with you and creating a safe, positive environment in which we all can grow to be the best doctors that we are capable of being, effective at making a difference in the lives of others. We all fell down when we first started walking and we all got up. There’s no greater joy than touching the hand that reaches down to help us up as our benefactor says, “It’s going to be okay, I’ve been there too.”
Annette Carron, DO, CMD, FACOI, FAAHPM