"How many of us have entered a doctor’s office only to be met by an unemotional individual with very little time for us who mostly stares into a computer screen?"
It was a classic case to Dr. James Doty, neurosurgeon at Stanford University and Director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. A young, obese patient walks in complaining of back problems. Medical training would have a surgeon look at the MRI results, discuss surgery options with the patient, and pass her on to assistants to schedule surgery. Classical medical training has a huge blind spot: We forget to see beyond the charts and scans.
Dr. Doty says that, if you looked at this young woman a while longer, behind the veil of hair that covered much of her face, something else revealed itself. She was obviously not comfortable making eye contact, too shy to even speak much. As she brushed her hair aside, her sleeve hitched up her arm, revealing dozens of scar marks near her wrist. She had clearly been cutting herself. She was not just a “classic” case of an overweight person with complaints of back problems. She was a human being suffering from a pain far deeper than the eye could see.
Tragically, physicians often lack the bandwidth for such observation. They often do not have enough time with patients. Surgeries are prioritized (after all, they bring in the money), medication is pushed—and patients receive little of the human connection, empathy, and compassion that they long for. Physicians are trained in scientific and technical excellence, but also clinical detachment. How many of us have entered a doctor’s office only to be met by an unemotional individual with very little time for us who mostly stares into a computer screen?
A friend of mine had to go in for an MRI. She was nervous to begin with and had a panic attack in the machine. Somehow, someone noticed that she was not comfortable and chose to hold her hand during the scan. To this day, she does not know who held her hand and helped her calm down, but she never forgot that moment.
The truth is that we never forget the deeply moving human moments in which we connect with another person with love and compassion—either the times that someone was there for us, or the moments we were able to be there for someone who was suffering. These experiences can tear us open and make us cry, but they also make us come alive. As the recipients of compassion, we experience hope, trust, and gratitude; as the giver, we experience deep purpose and meaning. Both leave us elated and inspired.
Research reveals that these human moments of compassion can also be instrumental in the healing of patients. Decades of data now show that an empathic connection between physician and patient results in much better outcomes for patients. Here are just a few examples: When patients experience their practitioner as more empathic, they experience shorter and less severe episodes of the common cold. They also demonstrate greater physical and emotional functioning. When a physician demonstrates empathy, a patient is much more likely to follow the recommended treatment plan and is more confident in her ability to help herself. Patients with diabetes who experience empathy from their physicians, for example, exhibit greater disease management skills. In fact, there is a strong relationship between the patients’ rating of their physicians’ empathy and their glucose levels.
And compassion doesn’t just benefit patients, it helps the physicians themselves! We hear the term “compassion fatigue”—the burnout experienced by health care providers who have seen too much suffering. Yet research shows that this fatigue is often due to the fact that the physicians are not given the time to be empathic and compassionate—and are therefore burning out. When they do have the bandwidth for moments of human connection— for sitting with people who are suffering, or their families, and exchanging a moment of solace, shared grief, or love—they experience less burnout.
The data is not surprising given research on the benefits of compassion: increased psychological well-being, better health, faster recovery from disease, and greater longevity. Empathy and compassion make people more resilient, healthier, and happier overall. Given that physicians have the highest suicide rates of any profession, compassion is in fact especially important for them.
I’ve had the opportunity to speak at a number of medical centers and medical schools. Too often, when I present this research, physicians have never heard of it. Nurses, thankfully, tend to be a little more aware of these findings.
One of the greatest needs of a patient is to be deeply understood. We know that our mental and emotional health impacts our physical health. For example, high levels of stress and trauma can lead to increased inflammation in the body—which we know is also one of the root causes of diabetes and cancer. It is so critical for us to pay attention to the healing of the psyche. So many patients come in complaining of back pain and asking for surgery when what they really need is someone to listen to them—or to hold them.
The day when she saw Dr. Doty, the young woman told him about her abuse as a little girl. She had been shuttled from doctor’s office to doctor’s office until she finally ended up in neurosurgery, yet no one had ever bothered to find out what the real cause of her pain was. Dr. Doty gave her a hug, spent a human moment with her, and sent her home. She had never actually needed surgery.