The Doctor Will Suffer With You Now | Compassion and Empathy in Health Care
By Kaitlyn Landgraf
Compassion, authenticity, empathy, communication—these are words we hear so frequently that we rarely to stop to envision what they mean. Even less often do we consider what they look like in a clinical setting, but on Friday afternoon at Medicine X five panelists gathered to share their insights on the misperceptions and fears that prevent deep understanding and connection among patients, doctors, and nurses.
Dr. Christine Park, associate professor of anesthesiology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, shared her experience of telling a patient’s family that he had died from unexpected complications. When she told them, she said, “there was a long silence. And in that silence, something amazing happened. There was no world beyond this room. A shared compassion emerged.” Reflecting later on the incident, Park realized that nothing in her medical training had ever prepared her for that moment, and it became the most transformative experience of her life. The Latin root of the word “compassion” means “to suffer with,” Park said, but although 80% of anesthesiologists report unexpected devastating catastrophes like the one she recounted, they almost never experience a time of connection or deep fellowship with their patients or families. “We as health care provider need to go off script, experience the bitterness, and to “suffer with.””
Charlie Blotner, a transgender brain cancer survivor, echoed Dr. Park’s call to see from the perspective of others. “Genitals don’t equal gender,” Blotner said. “I look in the mirror, and I just see a person,” Trans people are becoming more supported in society, but what about in health care? Blotner asked, suggesting that physicians include a place on a medical intake form for a patient’s preferred name and pronouns, and a box where they can write in their gender in order to provide a safe and welcoming space for transgender patients. “41% of transgender and gender nonconforming people attempt suicide, compared to 1.6% of the general population,” Blotner said. Doctors and health care providers need to “respect all authentic selves, regardless if they’re male or female, because we all deserve dignity and respect.”
Physical differences, according to Dr. Benjamin Bahan, professor of ASL and Deaf Studies at Gallaudet University who is himself a member of the deaf community, do not amount to failures but bring value to humanity as a whole. Why, Bahan asks, do doctors tell parents that their child “failed” a hearing test? Why do we apologize over the fact that a child can’t hear? We speak of hearing “loss” as if communication were lost, but the truth Dr. Bahan argues, is that deaf people who employ sign language convey a whole depth of meaning unavailable to those who hear. Deaf gain, he says, means that those who sign instead of speak employ spatial-temporal methods of communication that facilitate deeper connections than just speech, such as increased eye contact and special awareness. What if, Dr. Bahan asks, doctors were to employ signing when speaking with patient? A method of communication already based on physical movements and observations is far more facilitated toward addressing anatomy and physiology than simply spoken words. Doctors, he suggests, should begin to see deafness not as a disorder but as an exemplary model of communication for all humans.
Dr. Park, Blotner, and Dr. Bahan were joined onstage after their presentations by Aexandra Drane of Eliza Corporation and Beth Toner of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to discuss how to further break down the barriers that people so frequently build around themselves in the world of health care. Citing a line from To Kill a Mockingbird, Drane said to the speakers, “You never understand a person until you walk around in their skin. Thank you for sharing with us your skin.” A key question for communicating more authentically, Toner said, is to learn how to get better at understanding another person’s narrative. If a patient doesn’t want to talk about her diabetes because she’s upset about an issue at home, Toner said, we need to “learn how to get better at the big picture.” “Sometimes it’s as easy as changing the way we dialogue with each other.”
Each of Friday’s panelists have diverse experiences and backgrounds, but their compassion and empathy proved to be a common theme uniting them as they shared their stories onstage. Their hope is for providers and patients to partake in that same connectedness, to share in the fundamentally human experience of “walking in another’s skin.”
Kaitlyn Landgraf is a graduate student in the department of journalism at Stanford. She previously attended Thomas Aquinas College and Yale University, where she studied philosophy and religion. Follow her on Twitter at @KaitlynLandgraf.