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Adding Empathy to Medical School Requirements


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Is it possible for a young medical student to understand a patient's experience? Or the day-to-day life of a person with a chronic illness? In 'Healthy Privilege' – When You Just Can't Imagine Being Sick, Carolyn Thomas observes that "what I've learned since my heart attack is that, until you or somebody you care about are personally affected by a life-altering diagnosis, it's almost impossible to really get what being sick every day actually means. Such is the bliss – and the ignorance – of healthy privilege."

After experiencing a rare eye infection that resulted in her "worst  pain ever," first-year medical student Natalie Wilcox shared that "as doctors, it is our job not only to provide care, but to comfort, and to do this we must acknowledge our patients' feelings." While noting that every person experiences pain differently, Wilcox adds, "By recalling my own pain, I bring forth real empathy rooted in shared experience."

In Illness 101, internal medicine resident Madeline Sterling shares her own experience of being ill. Following months of neuropathic and muscular pain in her lower legs, she cautions, "The truth is that no matter how empathetic a physician you believe you are, it's hard to fully grasp the experience of being a patient until you become one." Madeline believes she learned something valuable: "As painful as it has been, this experience has helped me to understand what being sick is all about, and also what it means to be healthy."

After seeing a patient with a rare disease, medical student Joyce Ho wrote that each patient is still human and deserves to be treated as such:

"I thought about Charlie and what it is really like to be a patient. To go for days without food, sometimes with no good explanation. To wake up every morning to needle sticks for blood draws. To give up control of one's own body to painful treatments and procedures because the doctors are supposed to know best. To be seen and talked about as a medical mystery rather than a suffering human being."

Ho reminds clinicians, "At the end of the day, our job is to heal the patient, but there are many types of healing, not just of the physical body, but also of the soul. There is no reason why physicians cannot take part in that."

Teaching physician Rob Centor, M.D., offers some advice to young clinicians about what he learned from a cancer patient he became particularly fond of:

"An important lesson occurs to most physicians over time. We can cure some disease; we can slow the progression of some disease; we can prevent the complications of some disease, or at least delay those complications; but we should always remember that we are treating patients, not disease. When we can no longer impact the disease, our responsibility does not change."

Rob concludes, "Patients, not disease, are our responsibility. We must always remember that."

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Inside Health Care posts feature recent news and blog posts from the health care community and are part of the Center for Advancing Health’s portfolio of free, evidence-based coverage of what it takes to find good care and make the most of it.

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Carolyn Thomas says
October 19, 2013 at 12:37 AM

Thanks so much Jessie for covering such an important subject: empathy! - and also for including an excerpt from/link to my "Healthy Privilege" post.

I wrote that article specifically to address the tech hypemeisters who are busy developing mobile self-tracking health apps they claim will be The Next Big Thing in technology, all while saving the future of health care as we know it - except that they do seem to be so busy high-fiving each other over their tech brilliance that they seem not to have ever discussed their brilliant ideas with a Real Live Patient.

I was NOT thinking about doctors at all when I wrote that post, and I'm grimly amused (but mostly dismayed) by the "'Eureka!" moment inevitably expressed when docs do actually become patients. These are not the tech hipsters of Silicon Valley we're talking about - these are people who have chosen medicine as their life's work. People who know they'll be spending time with very sick people. Highly-educated brilliant people, the ones you'd expect would have at least some clue about how to behave and react and be around sick people.

Either those who plan medical school curricula are just as clueless in not drumming the importance of empathy into their students, or med schools are accepting the wrong type of brainiac applicants.

So when I read statements that seem meant to enlighten doctors like: "Patients, not disease, are our responsibility" or "Each patient is still human", I feel like crying. Why on God's green earth is it even necessary to offer that kind of news flash to those with the letters M.D. after their names?

*sigh* . . .

Karbearb says
October 23, 2013 at 10:06 PM

The people who possess the book intelligence required to become doctors, VERY often (9/10) lack any emotional intelligence/common sense. I am 34 and have had illness/disability since 8, I would experience all the pain and agony all over again if it meant I didn't have to deal with another doctor for one more second of my life. (I'll include in that statement the office receptionists, who think that their also doctors!) Having to see the doctors I see monthly is a painstaking practice in self control. I don't feed their egos and I ask the hard questions that force them to actually think for a minute instead of robotically going about their routine 10 minute script signing. So I would put that on par with the awfulness of the disease themselves.

Randy B says
December 11, 2013 at 9:22 PM

Excellent post but I have to agree that its hard to see that an MD has to tell other MD's to be empathetic.

It might help if they didn't beat the life out of them in 3rd year, or maybe worked with patients to fix errors.