The turmoil of empathy

John Taylor: December 03, 20123 Comments

I don’t detect a hug or warm smile anywhere in the following sentence: “U.S. hospitals and health systems should expect to do a lot more with a lot less.”

That’s how a story begins detailing the importance of employee loyalty as hospitals downsize and remodel themselves in the face of funding cuts and rapidly aging Baby Boomers. The headline doesn't have a soft squeeze or a kind sentiment either: “The role of empathy in cost reduction.”

I slogged through the article by Curt Bailey and Traci Entel in Hospitals & Health Networks Daily to find some valid tips. If leaders empathize/bond with their employees, including making time to walk around and be accessible, the employees may be more inclined to innovate and collaborate and bond with their patients. The takeaway: Empathy improves outcomes and saves money.

Then there was this New York Times headline: “’Concierge’ medicine, ObamaCare and the end of empathy.” It’s a slice-of-life opinion piece by Dr. Jerald Winakur in which he makes some sad realizations, wrapped around an elderly aunt. She’s just learned that her family doc has opted to become a concierge doc – she has to fork over $2,200 in additional annual fees just to be retained as a patient. She’ll get “value-added” services like same day appointments and other “frills” that she says were previously free.

Winakur said this is the wave of the future because single medical practitioners are getting hammered by government with fines, sanctions, lower reimbursements and more patients. His aunt’s takeaway: she doesn’t feel the same personal touch from her personal doc anymore. Leading Winakur to ask: “Are we witnessing the end of empathy in the practice of medicine?”

A third, entirely different sensation about empathy came in another New York Times story by Dr. Danielle Ofri, one of the hundreds of doctors (and thousands of patients) displaced from a hospital – in her case, New York City’s Bellevue Hospital -- by Superstorm Sandy.  She used words and phrases such as “ humbling and disorienting” and “the Bellevue diaspora.”

The docs used makeshift clinics, shared cubicles and toggled between the computer records systems of the hospitals where they worked temporarily and the one they hoped to go back to. They scrawled and taped notes to the cubicle walls detailing which clinic was where what day of the week so they could direct their scattered and refugee-looking patients. Patients, many of them in homes without heat or water, spent days tracking down their caregivers as medications dwindled and health problems multiplied.

“The first time I ran into one of my patients... we practically knocked each other over in a bear hug. We were so relieved to have found each other,” Ofri wrote. And as she and others were able to slowly return to the “home” of Bellevue, she posited this thought that will occupy my mind longer than the two other views of empathy I mentioned here: “We would do well to hang on to some of the unsettling feeling of displacement. It may prove to be an unexpected gift of empathy for our patients’ experiences.”


3 responses to The turmoil of empathy

Having talked with many

Having talked with many patients in Canada and Great Britain, I must report that my experience is the opposite of that implied by this respondent. In fact my experiences in these and other countries where health care is recognized as a human right, is that empathy in medicine is much healthier than in countries such as ours where medical care is rationed on the basis of financial ability to pay.


Empathy comes from the nurses

Empathy comes from the nurses at the bedside, and will always be there, no matter what country you are in. The pencil pushers and the money crunchers, now those people????? Statistical robots, I think. The bottom line is their business and the bottom line does not come with empathy.


It has always been my

It has always been my understanding that empathy is the first thing to go in any socialized medicine environment. Just ask patients in Canada and Great Britain.


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