500-level Medicine & Surgery
University of Ibadan
Empathy. The act of correctly acknowledging the emotional state of another without experiencing it yourself.
From mild cases like cold and catarrh to emergencies and end-stage cancers, we, as medical practitioners, often have quite a lot to deal with. At the outset, chances are that all of it is pretty strange—sometimes, we find ourselves in highly emotional situations, unsure how to act—but then time goes by and we get so engrossed in and used to work that our emotions become largely repressed. It feels like it is best to take all the energy that would usually go into emotive expressions and channel it into the medical work to be done. We forget that if we fail to have an empathy check every once a while, we become distant, too far removed from a crucial part of what makes a physician.
When I was fresh into clinical school, I always frowned at the offhanded way some senior colleagues treated patients, especially when it came to breaking bad news—that was even worse. I would often assert that I could never be like that. Continuing up the ladder, much happened that gave me pause and I realised, unfortunately, that things weren’t going to be so easy. It began to feel less stressful to get all the work done without emotions getting in the way.
During my obstetrics and gynaecology rotation, I remember meeting a patient who had severe pre-eclampsia that led to intrauterine growth restriction. She always looked so sad and unkempt—she didn’t care much about her hair, and why would she? She obviously had bigger problems. She was on the ward for weeks and I recall just thinking how funny her hair looked; how she felt about her reality then never crossed my mind. Looking back now, I wonder if any of my colleagues had thought and acted differently towards her. I don’t remember hearing anyone give her any form of assurance, but everyone did their jobs very well—at least as far as the science was concerned.
She got discharged after a few weeks and coincidentally, I ran into her at the antenatal clinic. I could tell she had the same hair on but something was…different. I guessed she was happier—I saw her smile for the very first time since I had been acquainted with her. She seemed to be without any form of anxiety from her previous ailment—it was a beautiful sight to behold. Perhaps, if she had had some form of emotional support back then, she would have gotten better sooner.
This made me carry out some form of empathy check. How did I go from struggling during rounds to hide my tears for some patients to thinking that giving emotions much less leeway would get the work done faster? Patients are people—they feel pain and every other emotion humans are capable of. The work is demanding, and some say it is better not to be emotionally invested in a case as it could cloud your judgement. While that may be true, I would like to add this: acknowledge what patients go through; look at your patients and try to see them. You need not experience it first-hand to understand their fears and be able to show them that you do—I strongly believe that that improves their overall prognosis.
I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person’s family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems if I am to care adequately for the sick — Modern version of the Hippocratic Oath.
An efficient doctor is good, but empathy and efficiency is a better mix. No matter how busy it gets, be sure to have that check regularly.