Healthcare providers strive to be excellent clinicians, and to use their knowledge built upon years of reading and clinical experience to help their patients get better. Sometimes, I think too much time is spent focusing on perfecting the clinical aspect of healthcare, and not enough time is spent on the human aspect. I don't think anyone disputes the importance of empathy, but I do feel that it's something that could always be improved on. Showing compassion and actively listening to patients can make a huge difference in their mental wellbeing, satisfaction, and relationship with that provider.
As a student currently undergoing clinical training in the medical field, I've seen firsthand examples of healthcare providers having difficulty expressing empathy towards patients, particularly those with comorbid psychiatric conditions. 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. have a mental health condition as of 2018, meaning that it's very likely to encounter a patient with a comorbid mental illness. I think healthcare professionals could do better in treating the patient as a whole, and understanding that caring for the health should go beyond physical signs and symptoms. Sometimes all it takes is to listen and acknowledge the feelings that the patient is having.
Part of the problem that some healthcare providers are facing in being able to empathize is compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is a secondary traumatic stress disorder that occurs in those in caregiving positions where they find themselves becoming apathetic towards the people they're trying to help. The causes can be attributed to working in environments with high levels of emotional demand, such as working with people or patients that are greatly suffering or traumatized. It commonly affects those in the healthcare and human service professions, and includes feelings of irritability, guilt, anxiety, trouble sleeping, insensitivity, and reduced feelings of empathy.
So, what can be done about this compassion fatigue? Practicing self-care is always a good idea, and even more so for healthcare professionals that think they may be experiencing compassion fatigue. This can include maintaining a nutritious diet, exercise schedule, sleep schedule, and finding a good work-life balance. Establishing friendships and relationships with people outside of work can be beneficial, as well as having healthy coping strategies. These could include meditation, walking outdoors, taking a bath, or doing yoga. It's difficult to care for others if we can't care for ourselves, too.
As we enter into an age where mental health conditions are becoming more and more recognized, the need for healthcare providers to be compassionate and empathetic grows. If providers can take the time to improve their own mental health, then that will help improve their empathy for patients.
"The State of Mental Health in America 2018." Mental Health America, 31 Oct. 2018, www.mentalhealthamerica.net/issues/state-mental-health-america-2018.
Staff, GoodTherapy.org. "The Cost of Caring: 10 Ways to Prevent Compassion Fatigue." GoodTherapy.org Therapy Blog, 31 Aug. 2017, www.goodtherapy.org/blog/the-cost-of-caring-10-ways-to-prevent-compassion-fatigue-0209167.
Written by Bridget Nazar