Here is an example of language, describing the same thing in two different ways.
“I was 15 when I started to suffer with mental illness. I went to see a psychiatrist who told me that I had something called Schizophrenia. For a couple of years my symptoms got really bad and people were afraid I was going to hurt myself so I was hospitalised. They stabilised me on meds and shock treatments and sent me home. For a long time, I didn’t get sick again.
Later, as an adult, I started to get symptomatic again. I got pretty psychotic and once again got put in hospital. They told me there that I was really sick and should go on disability. For a long time, I was pretty sick but then started to be able to manage my symptoms.”
“I was 15 when I started feeling different than others and really alone. For a couple of years after that, I would do things in pretty extreme ways. They made sense to me based on what I was thinking and feeling but I guess it was scary for others who didn’t really understand what I was thinking and feeling. I got put in a hospital. There I really lost hope and beliefs about being a ‘regular’ person. They put me on a lot of medication that made me sleepy all the time. After I left, I threw out all the meds and put my intensity into music.
Years later, coming out of a difficult marriage I started to have similar kinds of experiences as the ones I had as a kid. I had really strong feelings and felt pretty separate from others. I got put back in the hospital again. I was told I had a major mental illness and that I should go on disability. Though I did that for a while, I realised that I was just going along with their beliefs rather than looking at how I’d come to think in certain ways. Little by little, I figured out what to do with my intensity and I’ve been really growing ever since.”
Each one of us is simply at a different place in our growth and development. Using language that is personal and descriptive of our experiences enables shared understanding. It forces us to think of ourselves and others more broadly as human beings, free of labels and assumptions.
The Francis report concluded that patients were routinely neglected by a trust that was preoccupied with cost cutting, targets and processes and lost sight of its fundamental responsibility to provide safe care. An estimated 400 to 1,200 people could have died unnecessarily there between 2005 and 2008. In addition, the inquiry heard that receptionists in the accident and emergency department had regularly triaged patients
The public inquiry heard common themes of call bells going unanswered, patients left lying in their own urine or excrement, or with food and drink out of reach. Patient falls were also concealed from relatives. An inward looking organisation, with a low staff turnover, the trust suffered from a lack of new ideas and a negative culture that became entrenched. Extremely poor nursing care was at the heart of this enquiry bringing into question ‘empathy’ in health care professionals.
A qualitative study of empathy in 3rd year medical students showed that inhibitors of empathy may originate in the hidden curriculum creating a greater distance between patients and physicians. Cynicism as a coping strategy, primary importance of technical knowledge, emotional control, becoming and being a professional hence keeping a professional distance from patients reinforced lack of empathy. One student explained that exploring a patient’s true feelings is not permitted. She noted that she explored and discussed patients’ emotions less than before because she felt that it is not accepted within the medical educational environment.(Source: http://bmcmededuc.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1472-6920-14-165)
Good bedside manner is nothing but a practical demonstration of empathy. Can it be taught and learnt?
While at one level it is possible to ‘understand’ how another person might be feeling (cognitive empathy), not everyone is capable of feeling how the other person might be feeling (emotional empathy). Both are essential for people in caring roles.
In all my years as a practicing doctor, I have learnt that patients are not just a source of inspiration for me but a primary source of learning. Books can only teach you so much. Most valuable lessons come from patients and from observing the attitudes and behaviour of senior colleagues.