Empathy is such a simple skill

A lot of patients like me, not because I'm a good doctor or because I'm terribly friendly. I'm not even all that good at explaining things or 'shared decision making.' My one skill that has pleased my patients is simply that I try to be empathetic.

Many doctors advise caution about getting too emotionally involved with patients, and that it can suck you in, and it gets dangerous. And that's true. Empathy though is a very simple skill, and I think it's really a shame that doctors are so bad at it in general.

Empathy is trying to understand where someone is coming from. I saw someone today who was refusing tests and generally being quite difficult, but her life was spinning out of control with all sorts of new and scary diagnoses, and she was afraid to go further, afraid what the next test would bring.

I am not psychic. I found out by asking her. She told me that she didn't want anymore testing. Why? Because all the testing so far was not good. Well, if I was in her place, I'd be pretty scared to find out what the next test showed too. And I told her that.

I know it sounds trite, but the key to empathy is treating patients like people. Only a doctor could talk to someone about their dead wife, and then in the same breath ask about immunizations. It's no wonder that nurses are generally more appreciated than doctors, and view themselves as patient advocates. Doctors treat disease. Nurses treat people.

I saw a patient today and we talked about coffee for a while, and I think one of the nicest pleasures of being a doctor is meeting all sorts of interesting people. If I had to offer some advice to other docs, it would be that if you stop seeing people and start seeing diseases, it's time to retire.

1 comment:

cutting said...

I so agree with you...I think its worth getting emotionally involved with the patient, shows you are human! Glad i found your blog today, will follow regularly now.