Developing Empathy Takes More Than You Know
What you don't know about your patients' experiences can be the missing ingredient for developing empathy.
I've just about had it with hip surgery. Last year, I had bilateral hip replacements, right hip arthroplasty revision, and lots of physical therapy, but I still wasn't improving functionally. Then a radiologist discovered that I had a left gluteus medius tendon major-grade tear on MRI. Now I'm scheduled for tendon-reattachment surgery.
Although having surgery again is no picnic, what I dread most is going home. You see, I live alone and far from family. This time around, in addition to observing hip restrictions, I must be non-weightbearing for 6–12 weeks.
Hoping to avoid further surgery, I am committed to doing everything I can to recover successfully. I've spent five weeks, thousands of dollars, and over 100 hours planning and setting up my home in preparation. I've had a ramp to the door installed. I bought a new bed and moved my clothes to my new downstairs bedroom. Packages arrive daily, such as a shower chair and tub grab bars.
While "test-driving" (walking the process) activities of daily living on crutches in my recovery-ready home, I discovered I hadn't anticipated everything. For example, the ramp has no railing or platform at the top. When I'm going down the ramp, it is too steep and narrow to turn around and close the door. So I use a 10-lb dumbbell as a doorstop and a cane with a long narrow handle to pull the door closed from the bottom of the ramp.
My surgeon, a compassionate and caring person, didn't fully appreciate all the challenges I would be facing either. For example, when I asked how I could carry my daily bowl of soup to the table, he suggested I eat standing up at the stove. He quickly revised his answer, recommending I pour the heated soup in a thermos, then put it into a back pack to transport it to the table. I suspect he has never had major orthopedic surgery and had to take care of himself while disabled and alone.
Two recently published articles profiled physicians and their personal or family experiences with the healthcare system and explored how those experiences deepened their empathy for patients. In a Twitter conversation about these articles, I suggested somewhat tongue in cheek that maybe we should only admit students to medical school who have had experience with personal or family health issues.
Some radiologists are not patient-facing. Thus, it may be more difficult for them to have opportunities to develop empathy, even with respect to patients undergoing imaging examinations and procedures in their own facilities.
Here are a few of my suggestions for what radiologists can do to "experience" being a patient and develop more empathy. I'm not suggesting anything drastic, like being forced to use crutches to go through a TV reality show obstacle course laid out like a home while performing a predetermined set of activities of daily living, all while being timed of course. Imagine "American Ninja Warrior: Ultimate Post-Op Challenge." Instead, to cultivate empathy, try one or more of these:
- Give patients permission to talk to you. Ask them about their concerns about a treatment or an imaging test.
- Walk the process at your facility, first with a patient to "see" their experience. Listen to their comments and notice any challenges. Go through a few simulated imaging tests or procedures yourself (no radiation, contrast media, or needles involved).
- Think about how it would feel to wait several days for the results of your exam. Think about how the words in the report will sound in your head. Think about the challenges with and barriers to insurance pre-approval and scheduling of the test. Imagine trying to navigate these challenges if you were very ill, spoke limited English, or had little experience with medical terminology.
- Try to figure the out-of-pocket costs for yourself for an imaging study based on different types of insurance coverage of patients seen in your facility.
Finding ways to discover challenges with the healthcare system that you previously didn't realize will not only result in more empathy for your patients, it has the added benefit of identifying areas in the process that need to be improved.