Communication, Empathy and Compassion

Reflecting on today’s sessions, the idea of empathy and compassion as an integral component of effective communication and patient safety has me thinking about the current culture of healthcare. There is no doubt that empathy and compassion are of the utmost importance in healthcare and that physicians and nurses as individuals who enter this field value these attributes as such and aim to embody them. Yet, how is that so often we as healthcare providers seem to forget to put these concepts into action in our daily interactions with patients?

This is not to say that we intentionally neglect patients’ feelings and concerns. I  believe that most truly care for their patients and intend to be empathetic and compassionate, but going through my third year of medical school has changed my perspective on if we’re succeeding in this mission.

Before starting our third year, our faculty discussed with us the concept of burnout and the trend toward a decline in empathy as we progress through our medical education and training. To be honest, at the time I thought to myself – I understand what you’re saying but that won’t be me. Now, looking back on my third year, I can see how the point they were making is sadly very true.

As I went through my clinical rotations, I saw first hand the reality of burnout and its effects on empathy, compassion and patient care as it affected the interns, residents and attendings around me, and then by the end on my year on myself as well. There exists a culture in healthcare that is complacent with a decline in empathy. It’s frightening to realize this is the case and that I am not immune to it.

This culture and trend cannot be good for patient safety, as empathy and compassion are important factors in effective communication with patients as well as our colleagues, and without effective communication we cannot keep our patients safe. I don’t have the answers to this problem now, but being here in Telluride has me thinking how we can begin to solve it and will definitely have an effect on how I approach situations where I see that empathy and compassion are lacking in the future.

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