A friend of mine was recently hospitalized for complicated heart surgery. During the next few days following that surgery, there was a constant flow of hospital staff members coming to his bedside to check his vital signs, or his intravenous drip, or to adjust the window shades and refresh his water bottle. None of these people spoke to him other than a cursory good morning or afternoon. When his surgeon came in to check on him, he opened a laptop computer into which he entered information as he examined my friend’s surgical sutures and asked various test questions to see if he was responding properly from the surgery.
In addition to residual pain from the surgery, my friend was worried about the future and could not sleep well because of all the interruptions. As the days passed, he became more and more depressed. While he seemed to be getting first rate medical treatment, nothing was being done to address his emotional needs. Not one person — including his surgeon — asked him how he was really feeling or let him know that they understood what he was going through. He was getting first rate medical care but he was not feeling cared for. What seems to be missing in this scenario is empathy, the ability to recognize emotions being experienced by another.
Empathy may not even be on the agenda in medical school or in hospitals. In fact, the word suffering was rarely used by clinicians and leading medical journals because it was considered overly emotional. Nevertheless, anxiety, confusion, and uncertainty, are what many patients endure while their bodies are being treated with the best science and technology. But within the collection of body parts to be examined, tested, probed, medicated, and operated on, there is a human spirit that is suffering. As health care becomes more corporatized, more like big business, it seems less humane. Hospitals are in the business of treating human beings — their patients — and that patient’s satisfaction is becoming more important if the hospitals want to retain their funding. Some have tried sprucing up the décor and the menu, but they need to add empathy to the menu. MORE