Ask a group of nurses why they chose their particular career path and you’ll get the following answers:
“I was always helping my pets/friends/siblings when I was a kid.”
“I wanted to help people.”
“I read Cherry Ames books.”
“I just always wanted to be a nurse.”
“I was born to be a nurse.”
These responses give the impression that the characteristics behind nursing — caring, compassion and empathy — are an innate qualities. You’re either born with them or not. In addition to nurses, other health care professionals, teachers, firefighters and police officers are also credited with having a natural desire to help others.
But research published in the May 2012 Journal of General Internal Medicine says otherwise. Resident physicians who completed standardize empathy training with three 60-minute module were given higher empathy scores from patients than their counterparts who did not undergo the training. It’s possible to learn empathy and technology can help.
First off, what exactly is empathy? This handy little chart on diffen.com gives a good explanation. Empathy is relating to your patient because you have been in a similar situation. In other words, you can “put yourself in somebody else’s shoes.”
Empathy is important in health care for many reasons. It can help prevent employee burnout or compassion fatigue and help to develop strong patient-caregiver relationships leading to more satisfied and participatory patients.
How does technology affect empathy in health care?
I think many people feel that soft skills like empathy are incompatible with data driven, hardwired technology. Healthcare workers are often the first ones to mention this. On one of my many hospital admissions during my complicated pregnancy, a nurse was entering my prenatal history into the computer. Midway she stopped and said, “I’m sorry. These computers make me feel like patients are just here so I can get data to put into the computer to make it run.”
Patients often have the same feelings. When people find out you’re a nurse, they will tell you everything (and more than) you wanted to know about their last healthcare experience. A standard complaint is that the nurse didn’t make eye-contact and just “paid attention to the computer.”
Technology can give the appearance of removing empathy from health care, but it can also help put it back in. When oncologists expressed a desire to develop their empathy skills, researchers at the Duke Center for Palliative Care created a computer program based on the multiple day face-to-face empathy training workshops available.
Oncologists who did not take the computer course made no improvement in the way they responded to patients while those in the trained group responded with empathy twice as often as those who received no training. Empathetic interactions are facilitated when the patient-caregiver interaction space is considered when designing exam rooms and installing technology.
University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher Richard Davidson, known for his studies of Tibetan Buddhist monks’ brains during meditation, is developing a video game to help children learn empathy’s sister quality, compassion. And while some think the use of social networking decreases the social skills of those using it, Larry Dossey says that technology may actually encourage empathy.
With empathy and technology being such important parts of modern health care, I think the two will evolve to support each other in the next decade. I’m curious how (or if) you think empathy and technology will come together to improve the patient experience. I look forward to a lively chat in the comments section!