A feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.
Compassion Corner is a series from Patient Worthy that will focus on the subject of compassion in the healthcare and rare disease space. In this series, we explore the role of compassion in this field and what it means for caregivers, patients, and others.
Is compassion left to the individual physician or can it be part of a student’s curriculum? AAMC News published an article offering new programs fostering empathy in healthcare.
Virtual Reality in Healthcare
Fourth-year Illinois University medical student, Ashley Chin, experienced life as an elderly man who has hearing loss and macular degeneration. Ashley acknowledged that after diagnosing his medical condition she could not envision a world of muffled voices and the dark mass affecting his central vision.
That was until she was handed a headset and headphones and entered his world through virtual reality. Ashley explained that it is difficult to understand how symptoms affect patients by reading books. Her virtual reality experience made a difference. It is one of the new methods provided by medical schools that promote empathy in students.
The Physician-Patient Relationship
Dr. Mohammadreza Hojat is an empathy expert at Thomas Jefferson University. He considers empathy to be critical when establishing a physician/patient relationship. Studies have found that if patients feel their physicians care about them, their willingness to follow recommendations improves.
Physician empathy has been associated with a range of positive effects:
- Common colds being less severe
- Improved blood sugar counts
- Lower rate of physician burnout
Research by Dr. Hojat indicates that there is an erosion of empathy starting in medical school and then continuing during residency. During actual practice, doctors spend more time consulting computer data than they spend with their patients. However, medical schools are attempting to narrow the empathy gap.
Donald Tan, a medical student at UC Irvine, viewed the required empathy course with skepticism. He felt that he would naturally translate empathy into his practice.
Yet once in practice, he noticed many doctors holding back, as they are concerned about becoming overly emotional. The result is that they show very little empathy when at certain times the patient and family need deeper emotions.
Dr. Helen Riess, the director of the Massachusetts General’s empathy program, developed the course. In addition to identifying facial expressions, the course instructs students to recognize their own emotions which often interfere with effective communication.
Dr. Riess teaches students the following behaviors:
- Sit next to the patient rather than stand
- Be aware of the tone of your voice
- Avoid too many medical terms
- Speak less
- Listen to the patient or family member
Dr. Riess notes that doctors are often comfortable showing empathy if the patient’s condition is under control, but when the patient’s condition worsens or the patient is intense and demanding, the physician is generally unprepared to handle these tense situations.
Carrie Shaw was motivated to develop a virtual reality program that Donald Chin and other medical students were using after she became her mother’s caregiver. Carrie became frustrated when she was not able to understand what her mother was experiencing. It occurred to her that it would be helpful to describe patients’ stories through virtual reality platforms.
Other programs allow users to enter the world of Alzheimer’s patients, or visit with a patient who has a terminal illness.
The platform has gained acceptance in medical, nursing, and physical therapy schools. The program has also been accepted by osteopathic medicine and home care companies.
Teaching and Expressing Empathy
Dr. Frederick Kron, a research investigator at Michigan’s School of Medicine developed a virtual technology that instructs providers on techniques to express empathy.
Students are put into simulated situations. One such experience prompts the student to present an end-of-life diagnosis. The student’s facial expressions are evaluated as well as verbal communication and body language. The system elicits responses from the patient thus allowing students to make adjustments to their techniques.
Interactions are also offered to healthcare team members and are directed at providers’ biases which, if observed, would prevent a meaningful relationship with patients.
Dr. Megan Hsu was an Oakland University medical student. When during her internal medicine rounds, she noticed a patient with metastatic cancer. The patient had just been told that her cancer was progressing.
Dr. Hsu offered an uplifting meditation technique that she had learned during her years at medical school. Many doctors agree that although in some circumstances there may not be medical options for patients, there is always a way to empower them. You can show the patients that you care and that you are making a sincere effort to help them.
Dr. Ashley Guthrie, a graduate of Oakland is a resident at Mount Sinai’s ENT Infirmary. She manages to attend the bedside of her cancer patients when they have their bandages changed. She is aware that it is a painful and frightening process. Dr. Guthrie, who is preparing to be an oncologist, commented that she likes to be available for her patients and always offers them a hand.