“Empathy has no script...It’s simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘You’re not alone.”
– Brené Brown, PhD, American author and research professor of Social Work at the University of Houston
One of my favorite moments as dean of the College of Medicine takes place at the start of each new academic year during our annual White Coat Ceremony. Every August, I look forward to the wide-eyed excitement of our more than 200 incoming medical students as they cross the stage at Mershon Auditorium and don their very first white coats in front of their families, friends and mentors. It is truly a powerful moment.
With each new class that walks across the Mershon stage, I can see clearly how the future of medicine is amazingly bright. My confidence is, in part, thanks to the knowledge that through our “Lead.Serve.Inspire.” curriculum, these learners will participate in thoughtful, specialized instruction on how to become empathetic, patient-centered caregivers, no matter what specialty they ultimately pursue.
I consider myself fortunate to have discovered early in my medical career the specialty that would become my life’s passion. As an otolaryngologist – head and neck surgeon, I have dedicated my career to understanding how people interact with the world using a beautifully complex system — sight, hearing, voice, taste, smell and so on. I often come into my patients’ lives when a piece of that system stops working properly, and every time I am reminded of just how crucial the practice of empathy is to health care.
We all have a general idea of what empathy means, but it can be hard to define and even harder to achieve. Consider this scenario — a good friend shares with you that he is struggling financially. How do you respond? Is your instinct to offer suggestions that might solve the problem? Or make positive comments to help him see the silver lining? Or do you simply lend him your ear, acknowledge his feelings and share how sorry you are?
The latter is empathy at its finest. It is the capacity to step into the shoes of another person, to experience the world through their eyes and to feel what they feel — without trying to change those feelings. For most people, this is much easier said than done. Our instinct is to respond right away with words of positivity and helpful ideas; oftentimes, however, what others need most is just to be heard and to know someone cares enough to listen.
In the United States, one of the foremost experts on empathy is Brené Brown, a research professor of Social Work at the University of Houston. In her book, Daring Greatly, Dr. Brown sums up the concept of empathy very succinctly. She writes, “Empathy has no script. There is no right way or wrong way to do it. It’s simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘You’re not alone.’”
A healing message indeed.
In the realm of health care, empathy is the foundation of meaningful patient-clinician relationships, fostering trust, healing and recovery. Studies have shown that patients who feel emotionally supported by their health care providers tend to have better treatment adherence, faster recoveries, improved overall wellness and increased satisfaction with their care. For health care professionals, this approach helps to protect against burnout and leads to greater well-being.
By practicing empathy — listening actively, without judgment, and responding with genuine care and concern — we can show our loved ones, our colleagues, our learners, and the patients and families we serve, that they are understood and supported, and that they can always count on us to be there for them. So, the next time you find yourself talking with someone who is struggling, whether that is in the clinic, your office or your home, consider how powerful it will be to make your first reaction simply, “I understand. You are not alone.”
Carol Bradford, MD, MS
Dean, College of Medicine
Leslie H. and Abigail S. Wexner Dean’s Chair in Medicine
Vice President for Health Sciences, Wexner Medical Center