Empathy: Crucial For Effective Healthcare

© GLOW IMAGES (model used for illustrative purposes only)
© GLOW IMAGES (model used for illustrative purposes only)

Can the caring at the heart of healthcare sometimes seem to get lost?

Many think it does, as classic family physicians have been increasingly replaced by time-constrained, clinical specialists.

Among doctors, such caring used to be called a “good bedside manner”.  And after more than a generation of specialized training focused on medical knowledge and technical acumen, the value of empathy is being re-discovered and taught as an essential skill.

It improves the experience of both patients and doctors when medical professionals express clinical empathy, according to the Kaiser Health news service.  The patient feels understood and cared about, has a better outcome and is more satisfied.  The doctor in turn gets a better rating, faces less risk of malpractice suits and experiences decreased burnout.  The whole system is benefited.  (SeeEfforts to Instill Empathy Among Doctors are Paying Dividends.”)

I too have learned how powerful empathy can be, in my journey as a practitioner of Christian Science healing.  But I view it from a slightly different angle.  To me, empathy for patients is not just a technique to show you understand another person’s emotions and share their feelings.  Rather, it’s at the core of our desire to help one another.  As children of a loving Creator, the capacity to care for each other is innate in all of us.

In that sense, you can’t take the care out of healthcare.   It surely must be the basic motivation to become a doctor or any kind of healing practitioner.

One barrier to empathy identified by the Kaiser Health article is that doctors can be “explainaholics.”   The tendency is to approach every situation with more and more words, as if piling on information and explanations will help patients deal with worries or discouragement.

Consequently, doctors are often surprised at how a simple gesture – a willingness to listen or express an understanding of what someone is going through – can mean so much to the patient and to the outcome.

I’ve certainly found that in my own healing practice.  Patiently listening to patients is vital.  Rather than cutting someone off due to time pressures or insensitively pounding in explanations, giving an individual the opportunity to be heard first can make a world of difference.  Then there is more mental and emotional space for a response of comfort or helpful ideas to be received.

The basis of my healing work is a textbook of spiritual healing called Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, by Mary Baker Eddy.  In a chapter titled “Christian Science Practice”, the author similarly counsels practitioners not to be explainaholics.

“The tender word and Christian encouragement of an invalid, pitiful patience with his fears and the removal of them, are better than hecatombs of gushing theories, stereotyped borrowed speeches, and the doling of arguments, which are but so many parodies on legitimate Christian Science, aflame with divine Love,” she writes.

Indeed, to offer just the metaphysical teaching that is at the center of my religion would not result in healing.  The words have to be animated by Christian affection and empathy to heal.  I know this from my experience as both a practitioner and a patient.

As the healer, it can be tempting to think that if I could just help this person understand the spiritual ideas they need to be clear about, then all would be well.  But such a focus on explanations can’t substitute for genuine caring.  If fear is first allayed by empathy and love, then spiritual understanding that brings healing to the body can follow.

As the patient, there have been times when I’ve asked a Christian Science practitioner for help from a very dark place.  I was so afraid or in pain, that I wasn’t receptive to a lot of metaphysical ideas.  At such times, practitioners have responded with patience, empathy, heartfelt prayer, even humor (when appropriate!).  And maybe offered a few ideas, too, if I was able to hear them.

It wasn’t so much what was said but how it was said that enabled me to receive the benefit of those insights.  What the practitioner said might have been right – the words I needed to hear – but the way they said it with empathetic love, was light.

Teaching empathy in a course is a great start, if we lack it.  But it is much more than a skill to be learned.  It’s a part of who we are.  The Scriptures tell us that “God is love” and that we are all created “in the image of God.”  As the image of Love, our true nature includes empathy.

So it’s normal to actually care enough about another person to put ourselves in their shoes and yearn for their freedom from pain – just as we would want someone to do for us.  It’s a way to live the golden rule – to love our neighbor as ourselves, as Jesus put it.  This isn’t just a noble goal but a very practical expression of our true nature.

For effective healthcare, let’s ensure care is its beating heart.  Empathy is a must!

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