The Importance of Teaching Empathy
April 16, 2012
As in a riddle, what do Spiritual Care, Palliative Care, and April have in common? They all live in the same moment. As this month moves ahead, day after day, our lives have their own pace, sometimes in parallel universes, seemingly dis-integrated if only because that is how we can manage. However, this month, the steps to make Palliative Care more of a requisite part of quality healthcare and the role of Chaplains as primary to the patient experience….is a step in re-integrating how healthcare wants to be. Florence Nightingale claimed, in frustration, that much was said (in her time) about the impact of the mind on the body, but little is said about the impact of the body on the mind. And so, this breakthrough reflects a hope and acknowledgment of the human condition that holds and cares for the physical condition.
Pushing further towards more humane medical care, the MCAT, exams required for entrance into medical school, now includes four segments on empathy (NYT, April 13, 2012, ” Pre-Med’s New Priorities: Heart and Soul and Social Science“). Questions are being introduced that involve social and behavioral sciences, subtle capacities that will translate in more empathy and compassion at the bedside tied to the highest skill levels. In the New York Times article, references are reluctantly made to the humanities as being perhaps an avenue to bridge what has become the medical gap between the science and person.
Dr. Martha Nussbaum (University of Chicago, School of Law) in her writings on the fragility of human goodness, makes a good case for the humanities being requisite for teaching compassion, empathy, and for learning how to conceive of the experience of others unlike us. The arts, music, literature, drama, dance…each translate the human condition into a form more universal while being so subjectively interpreted.
In the healthcare setting, human suffering meets science and technology at its best and most detached. A heart monitor measures the functionality of the human heart, but hardly the condition of the person whose heart it is. Focusing on the patient experience, on the living and breathing individual whose health has been entrusted to the medical team, requires empathy as well as clinical excellence, one not be sufficient without the other.