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We Need a Code of Empathy. Stat.

January 24th, 2019

We have a Code of Conduct and a Code of Ethics. Heck, for you history buffs, we even have the Code of Hammurabi. Why don’t we have a Code of Compassion, though? More specifically, a Code of Empathy? It wouldn’t be limited to the healthcare profession, but I can’t think of a better place to begin the codification process.

Actually, a Google search did turn up a video on a code of empathy, but its views are relatively insignificant; plus, it was preceded in search findings by ‘coding with empathy’ and ‘coding with compassion.’ I think that means the door is open for a movement on empathy in healthcare.

Empathy requires an individual to put him or herself into the shoes of another who is vulnerable in some way, perhaps due to illness, surgery, grief, depression, or even embarrassment. We’ve all been vulnerable on occasion. In the hospital or other type of healthcare or rehabilitation setting, we may be at our lowest point of vulnerability. Responding to patient requests, or chastising patients in recovery, with the following comments reveals an utter absence of empathy (these are actual statements made by healthcare professionals to a patient):

• “I haven’t got time for that.”
• “Your cognitive skills are poor.”
• “You don’t want to get better.”
• “If you don’t do show improvement, your insurance company won’t pay for your treatment.”

Why so harsh? Have physicians and healthcare professionals become so focused on data, dollars and the demands of some health plans that it’s impacting patient care? Even if my experience with a loved one’s recent hospitalization was isolated, the comments took place over the span of several weeks and were noted on a variety of different occasions, during varying stages of post-op and recovery, by multiple levels of staff. That’s my way of saying it wasn’t isolated. Perhaps it was isolated to this hospital; but from conversations with colleagues I discovered that was not the case. (Note, there certainly were kind and empathetic individuals providing care – they stood out.)

In the meantime, I’ve been considering responses to patient and family queries that reveal both empathy and honesty while setting patient goals for recovery.

• “What type of goals shall we set today to get you closer to recovery?” This could be getting dressed, getting out of bed, using a walker to get to the bathroom or walking up and down the hallway, depending on the patient’s abilities.
• “Feeling depressed at this stage is natural. Let’s wait on a neuro-psych evaluation until the patient is further along in the recovery process.”
• “It’s too soon to say what you can or cannot do in the future; let’s take it a day at a time at this point.” (In other words, NEVER say never. If something is never to happen, it will be revealed in due time.)
• “Don’t beat yourself up. You’re doing as well as can be expected this soon after surgery.”

Empathy is fostered with peer-to-peer support. Empathy grows in an empathetic culture. Connecting with others during illness and recovery is critical to one’s ultimate health and well-being. Perhaps we need more empathetic role models in healthcare. Then the code of empathy would write itself. Or better yet, would not be required.
Ewa Matuszewski is the CEO and co-founder of MedNetOne Health Solutions. This blog was originally
published in Healthcare Michigan on January 24, 2019.

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