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Helping Healthcare Professionals Find Empathy Through Patient Stories

I just finished reading The Power of Kindness, Why Empathy is Essential in Everyday Life by Dr. Brian Goldman. The book begins with Dr. Goldman, an emergency room physician, asking the question — am I a kind soul? He embarks on a quest to learn more about empathy, what makes some people more empathetic and others less, and how he, as a doctor, can be more empathetic with his patients.

As he begins his research he finds “the capacity of veteran nurses to respond to the pain their patients feel is dulled by years of experience.” The longer nurses, or other healthcare professionals, have worked in their field, the less able they are to respond to the pain of their patients. This could be due to the fact they regularly work with patients in pain as well as their high-stress work environment.

Working in patient advocacy, and having written two patients advocacy books on helping mothers and caregivers have their voices heard, as I was reading The Power of Kindness I began thinking about the role patient advocacy can play in helping healthcare professionals be more empathetic.

I’m sure there has been many time as a patient you have felt you were just a body being treated versus being seen as a person. The nurse or doctor has come in, taken your vital signs, asked about your concerns, written a prescription and sent you on your way in minutes. While this may seem efficient from the outside, I expect at times you left not fully understanding the information you were given or frustrated that your concerns were not truly heard. I know I have.

Unfortunately, many patients don’t advocate for themselves until after they have a negative experience, and often an extremely negative situation. Some are intimidated by healthcare providers while others are too exhausted from the experience to know they have a voice.

As we look at the patient/healthcare provider relationship, we have to realize these professionals are people too. They work high-stress, busy jobs, dealing with an endless stream of patients. If they got emotionally invested in every patient, they would likely burn out. Yet this doesn’t mean they can’t have empathy for the person sitting in-front of them who is scared, in pain, exhausted or worried about their, or their loved one’s, condition.

Being seen as person not just a patient
This is where patient advocacy plays an important role — in helping put a face, and human experience, to the patient.

When I’m advocating for my child, I never start with what the problem is or the outcome I’m advocating for. Rather, I take the time to explain my child as a person so the healthcare provider sees beyond the information on the chart and has insight (and hopefully empathy for) the child sitting in the chair.

I talk about my child’s extensive medical encounters (letting them know there is a history and legitimate reason for his fear of doctors). I then set the stage for what the experience I’m advocating for should look like for him, as a child. I often need to explain how children process information differently from adults and why he needs to be viewed (and treated) as a six-year-old who is fearful of doctors versus a generic patient in for a test.

Patient advocacy has a huge role to play in transforming healthcare to be more patient focused. We need to ensure our voices are heard, and stories told, so healthcare professionals can truly understand how common procedures or processes impact patients — positively and negatively.

If we know the longer healthcare professionals work in their field the less able they are to respond to their patients’ pain (physical and emotional), then it’s even more important we share our personal stories to help them see, without judgement or criticism, the reality of life as a patient.

The more patients and healthcare professionals work together to hear, and include, patient voices in decision making, the closer we will come to creating patient centred healthcare we can all be proud of.

How can you have your patient voice heard and help your healthcare provider have a bit more empathy for you as a person? Is there anything you will do differently the next time you feel unheard or frustrated during a medical appointment? What is the role you play in transforming healthcare (no role is too minor)?

Writer, communications professional, speaker and patient advocate. Visit for free communications tools to help share your stories.

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