Can empathy be taught?
I’ll bet every one of you has walked out of a doctor’s office and wondered whether you connected with your doctor, especially if he/she’s a surgeon.
With way too many surgeons, I’ve felt that they’re busy devising a plan of action while I’m talking to them rather than listening through the answers I give to their questions. They show interest in a solution but not necessarily in me. I registered with them as a problem to be solved. The doctors I feel connected to offer me options.
We’ve all had experience with the ones who actually listen and the ones who register what we say while we’re saying it, devise a plan of action then send us on our way. We leave with hope but not satisfaction.
My kind of doctor might lean toward me, keep eye contact, repeat something I’ve said, ask more questions and use what I say to develop a plan. My PCP usually ends our appointments with, “We’re here for you. Call us if you need to.” That doesn’t guarantee how things are going to work out but it sure makes me feel better.
There are some very qualified doctors that I just won’t revisit because they seem to be arrogant answer-givers and deal with me as a case, not a person.
The idea of showing empathy to demonstrate to patients that their doctor is connecting with them at a human transactional level seems like a no brainer. At most hospitals, it ain’t.
Psychologist Dr. Helen Reiss directs Mass General Hospitals Empathy and Relational Science Program. The program is based on several years of research and data from measured micro-perspiration of the skin, heart rate, and skin temperature of both doctor and patient during appointments.
As a psychologist, she knows that empathy doesn’t come naturally to all of us but has empirical evidence that it can be taught. In 2013, she developed Empathetics, an online, interactive course that trains health care professionals worldwide. Being a people person is not a requisite for being a good surgeon or PCP but it damn well helps.
Empathy comes naturally to many of us. You know when you’re in the presence of anyone who seems to “get you”. Whether it can be taught is an open question. The fact that it’s on the radar screen opens the window to the brave new world for some doctors.