The Empathy Gap: Can Doctors Really Understand What You’re Feeling?

Television shows about doctors and hospitals are popular for a reason: They reach down into our deepest, darkest places and let us gently explore the fears we all have of a devastating accident or illness that changes everything for ourselves or a loved one. But those same shows leave us with idealized expectations of doctors that our subsequent personal experiences fail to meet. This largely revolves around a perceived “empathy gap.”

We expect doctors to not only be ridiculously attractive but to be overflowing with concern. We expect them to deliver bad news sitting beside us and holding our hands while their own eyes well up with tears — which is why it stings so badly when the real doctors in our lives deliver news with a detached, professional coldness.

But the empathy gap isn’t entirely in our imaginations. For some doctors, the unbearable becomes routine. They see so much suffering and tragedy that they develop a very task-oriented approach, almost as if they’re working on an assembly line. They’ve delivered so many bad medical prognoses that delivering one more is just another day at the office. Others feel too much, so they have to bottle it in just to be able to do the job.

That kind of distancing has been around since the days of Hippocrates, but there’s something going on today that makes the empathy gap even wider: technology. For all the wonderful advances that technology has made possible, it’s also put even more distance between patient and provider. Rather than making a diagnosis through a physical examination, today’s doctors can make many diagnoses by looking at a computer screen filled with test results. It becomes all too easy to forget that there’s a real human being — with a life and loved ones — on the other side of that data.

Nurse Heather Walker is on a mission to change that. Using simulations, she teaches doctors and other providers how to put the human element back into the work they do. Patients are portrayed by “real” people (not medical workers or professional actors) who role-play the doctor-patient interaction and then provide feedback on the way the doctor made them feel. Walker explains that, initially, she was surprised by the insight and nitty-gritty details of the feedback the “patients” delivered, but now realizes how much value the training derives from using real people. While the feedback is sometimes hard to hear, most of Walker’s students appreciate it and take it to heart.

Heather Walker’s mission to improve the ability of medical professionals to empathize with their patients is a great reminder for all of us to recognize the common humanity of everyone we encounter. No matter what our roles are at the time — doctor/patient, employee/customer, student/teacher, etc. — the person on the other end of that reaction is still a person. How much kindness can we put into the world by remembering that one simple fact?

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