“Empathy” is defined by Merriam-Webster, in part, as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, … the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another…” Why would a plaintiff’s personal injury and medical malpractice attorney write about empathy? Well, the answer is easy for so many reasons. In this blog, part 1, I will share some of my experiences as a patient and some observations that I have made over the past 33 years as an Ohio medical malpractice attorney in terms of the lack of empathy that I have experienced and witnessed.
About a year ago, I was a patient in a local hospital having experienced a back-related condition. I was admitted and underwent various diagnostic tests to determine the cause of my pain. During that hospital stay I met various concerned and caring nurses and some not so caring healthcare providers. The attending physician, a hospitalist, came into my room in the early evening after I had come back from radiology and said I was free to go home and she started to walk out of my room. I was shocked by her demeanor and her quick and uncaring attitude. I quickly advised her that I did not understand as I was waiting for the results of the tests and did not know what my diagnosis was. She quickly and rudely said she spoke to the consultant that did my tests and he said I could be discharged. Again, I asked what the diagnosis was and what discharge instructions would be given since I was still in pain and unable to walk without the aid of a walker. She, again, said, “I saw you walking in the hall with a walker and you will be fine so you can go home.” No other information was provided by this doctor and she left the room. To say I was shocked is an understatement.
Why didn’t this doctor take the time to address my concerns? Why didn’t she explain what the tests showed? Why didn’t she appreciate my concerns as a patient? All she did was walk out of the room as if I didn’t exist. To add insult to misery, her colleague came into the room about 45 minutes later and said “are you ready to be discharged?” This was then followed by a statement that “you are lucky that anyone is willing to treat you since you are a medical malpractice attorney.” After my jaw dropped open and I realized what had been said, I asked her whether she really said that and what did that have to do with treating me as a patient. As if to take back what she said, she quickly apologized but it was clear that I was not going to get answers and certainly was not going to be treated like I expected to be treated. It was also clear that the attitude and atmosphere on this medical floor had me pegged as someone that they did not want to help.
While I tried to chalk the experience up to the fact that the original hospitalist didn’t like lawyers, I was left with the distinct impression that she didn’t care about my feelings or my thoughts or concerns and it didn’t have to do entirely with my occupation. I knew then that she needed a lesson in empathy. I learned after this experience that this hospitalist had treated other patients in the same way and that it was not that I represent patients that have been injured due to medical errors.
I have learned from hundreds of clients that have shared similar experiences that they had with their healthcare providers that empathy seems to be lacking in the healthcare arena on a regular basis. While hospital systems advertise about the caring doctors that they employ, the reality is that empathetic doctors are a luxury, seem to be the exception and not the norm. To most patients, a little understanding and compassion can make the difference between a healing environment and an emotionally upsetting and anxiety-creating encounter. Empathy through words and action can help with the healing and avoid potential medical-legal problems as well!
The next time you have a doctor that stops and listens to your concerns and tells you he or she understands and he or she follows through with what he or she says is going to be done to get you better or to find out why you’re feeling like you are, thank the doctor and congratulate him or her for being empathetic and for being what we all expect from the healing science of medicine.
While we can’t always get the amount of time and attention we want from a doctor because of the busy nature of medicine and the business of medicine, we expect and demand that doctors listen and that they remain in the moment and are sensitive to their patient’s concerns. The more empathetic and understanding the encounter with a doctor the more likely the doctor-patient relationship will be healing and beneficial for all concerned. Stay tuned in the future for part 2 and further stories and lessons learned on empathy in the medical field.