Cultivate Empathy: Walk a Mile in Someone Else’s Shoes
If you understand another's feelings and perspectives, your words and actions will reflect that.
As radiologists, we're immersed in images during our workdays, describing what we see in those images and trying to get to the "truth" of what our findings represent for the imaged patient. Have you ever looked at the images you are interpreting and wondered who that person is, how their day has been, how they feel, and how what you say in a diagnostic imaging report will change their life for better or worse?
In radiology, by virtue of interacting primarily with images of patients, rather than the patients themselves, we are largely detached from the emotional aspect of diagnosis, from the patient's symptoms, fears, values, and so on. When you aren't patient-facing, you aren't discussing your patients' image results with them, asking them about their experience in the radiology department, listening to their questions and concerns, and observing body language.
As visual media, graphic stories may be a natural fit for connecting radiologists to the patient experience. The power of the graphic story is its ability to more efficiently (and arguably more effectively) convey emotions by combining images with minimal text, mostly in word and thought bubbles. Unencumbered by the bulk and concreteness of a text-only story, where the author often tells you explicitly what a character is feeling, the images allow you to provide your own interpretation. In that way, graphic stories are more akin to how we experience our everyday lives in and out of work.
Below is an image from a graphic story that appears in the JACR. However, the text in the word bubble has been removed. Before you click on the link to the article to see the original published text, fill in the blank space with your own words. Then ask someone else to do the same.
So what did you put in there? How about when you showed it to someone else? The possibilities are as numerous as the people who look at the image. I looked at it and thought, "The specimen you brought in is inadequate. I'll get you another specimen cup. The restroom is just down the hallway on the left." I showed the image to my husband and his word bubble entry is, "Unfortunately, your insurance company is denying coverage for this procedure." I was surprised at his response because it's not what I was thinking, how I interpreted that scene. Yet I can see how his words fit the scene because of the patient's posture and facial expression. Interestingly, we both saw the scene as the health care staff member delivering information that frustrated the patient. If, like me, by virtue of this exercise, you could feel what the depicted patient felt, if in that moment you shared in his experience of frustration, as if you were in his shoes, that's empathy.
Empathy is patiently and sincerely seeing the world through another person's eyes. It is not learned in school; it is cultivated over a lifetime.– Albert Einstein
Reading the JACR article accompanying the graphic story, I was particularly drawn to the concept of reciprocal empathy. At the core of an ideal patient-physician relationship is this simple but incredible idea: if health care provider and patient have empathy for each other, they can better relate to each other and be more effective partners. But this holds true for any meaningful human relationship, no? So, ultimately, empathy is about acknowledging and honoring another's humanity, his or her inherent dignity and worth.
Empathy is the topic of this month's #JACR tweetchat. Join in on Thursday, February 23, at 12 noon EDT by searching for #JACR on Twitter and including #JACR in your tweets. As an added bonus, this month's tweetchat features CME. Moderating the tweetchat is P.F. Anderson, an emerging technologies librarian at the University of Michigan, patient advocate, and lead author of the JACR article that is the subject of this blogpost and the upcoming tweet chat. The tweetchat questions are as follows:
The article is free, as is the rest of the December 2016 special issue on patient- and family-centered care, so share it with other health care providers, your patients, and your institutional leadership.