Empathy Unplugged

Empathy.  It’s something all of us would agree is a valuable—and often missing—component of care.  So when a prominent medical institution makes an ideal of empathy the central subject of a PR campaign, the result is a powerful short video.

The institution in question is the Cleveland Clinic. Their video came to my attention when a colleague recently forwarded me a link to it, asking, “What do you think?”

I followed that link to the Cleveland Clinic’s website, which explores empathy and the human component of patient care. At the top of the page, it poses the question: “What if you could see a thought bubble over every person’s head, telling you what they were thinking and feeling as you walked by?”

The question I asked myself was: are they implying that at their institution they are able to actually know their patients’ thoughts and feelings?

In search of an answer, I watched the video. It opens with a quote by poet Henry David Thoreau, who asks us “to look through each other’s eyes for an instant.” For the next 4 minutes and 24 seconds, I do… the video shows patients as well as employees thinking not just about the experiences that have brought them to the hospital but also about the joys and challenges of their individual lives.

It’s a powerful message. And there is no question in my mind that the Cleveland Clinic has made people an institutional priority, seeking not only to understand the patient’s experience but also that of visiting family members, doctors, nurses and employees. No doubt they mean it when they conclude their video by saying, “Every life deserves world class medicine.”

But I do have to ask: operationally, how do they make this ideal a reality?  Doctors—even at the most patient-centered institution—cannot be expected to be mind-readers. In other words, how do the doctors and nurses at Cleveland Clinic discover what their patients are thinking and feeling? The video doesn’t describe how this ideal is realized in day-to-day practice.

Further, I think about all the patients not being treated at the Cleveland Clinic, many of whom may not have a doctor who believes it is important to know how they think and feel. Because until the entire healthcare industry finds a way to both prioritize empathy and achieve it in practice, it will still fall to patients to speak up to make sure their thoughts and feelings are known.

We hope the Difficult Conversations Workbook can be a means toward this ideal that the Cleveland Clinic rightly praises—one that is in reach of patients everywhere.

(3) Comments

  1. You’ve stated this so clearly and with such feeling. Love, Carole

  2. Dr. Susheela Rani

    Yes. I fully agree. I have read the book Difficult conversations in connection with a talk I needed to give on “Communication in Medical practice”. Ever since, my own way of dealing with my patients has changed and I have been invited to give this talk in many places.We thought that empathy should come from within a person. But, it is a thought that can be cultured and nourished into a being that can make a world of difference to the patients.

  3. It is a wonderful intention to set, a beautiful and powerful mission to make empathy a core value of any healthcare institution. However, how many of us have heard this before in other forms, year after year couched in new employee trainings or expensive educators brought in to teach a new “approach to care”…all too often forgotten and left behind once business as usual takes attention away. I so appreciate you asking the question, HOW?

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