Over the many years of living with a chronic illness, I have seen many healthcare providers. Some were good and others not so good. If I walked away from a meeting with a provider feeling like I hadn’t been heard and wanting to shout, “Can you hear me now?” then the provider wasn’t a good match for me. Empathy (being heard by the provider) is deeply important to me and is part of my quality healthcare plan.
Over the past several decades, my research has focused on understanding the characteristics of a special relationship between patient and healthcare provider that I call the “healing relationship.” It is a therapeutic relationship that promotes patient well-being.
Clinical empathy is a crucial part of this relationship. When the relationship functions well, the patient doesn’t ask in desperation, “Can you hear me now?” Instead, she walks away from the meeting feeling that she’s been heard and understood. Along with that comes a sense of trust in the provider and the treatment plan offered. This can then lead to greater treatment compliance, a higher quality of healthcare, and better treatment outcomes.
The healing relationship is not just academic for me; it is a practice. Honestly, between retirement and the chronic illness, I had thought the skill had become too rusty to use, like an old pair of scissors left outdoors too long. But this week surprised me with encounters in which three people asked for the healing relationship to form. These three people had very traumatic events in their lives, and all three needed solace.
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Solace isn’t handing them a chocolate chip cookie and saying, “I’m sorry you had to go through that. Here, take this. It will make you feel better.” Solace happens through empathy, along with compassion, a type of Tonglen practice. It is a sacred relationship in the sense that it is held with reverence and humility, and is never sought, but always allowed. I thought I had lost this, and am so incredibly grateful to have been proven wrong.
The healthcare provider is there to meet the needs of the patient. Those needs can only be accurately met when they are fully known. At times, we patients need to educate our providers. There must be a shared dialogue within the patient-provider relationship that is aimed at promoting well-being.
The characteristics of the healing relationship help the provider acquire knowledge about the needs of the patient and develop a relationship of trust. When wisdom is added, compassion results and quality healthcare can occur.
The healing relationship is not a new thing. Healers, doctors, nurses, and other healthcare providers have been writing about it for the past few decades. They have been calling for a need to be fulfilled within the practice of healthcare by bringing back this art of healing.
Patients will want to scream, “Can you hear me now?” when the healthcare provider seems not to be listening or is absent of empathy. It is deeply frustrating not to be heard; it leads to misunderstanding, and healthcare needs are unmet.
Fortunately, there are many healthcare providers who do have empathy and compassion. Finding them and incorporating them into your treatment team is a positive step toward personal well-being.
What experiences have you had with the difference between empathic and insensitive healthcare practitioners? Add your voice in the comments below. It will help advance our understanding.
Editor’s Note: Dr. C will be taking a break from publishing his column. Please continue to follow his column when he returns.
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