We need to put the care back in health care

When you go to your physician’s office, or the laboratory for blood work or radiology for X-ray’s, do you feel like you’re an imposition? Like you’re an inconvenience to the clinician or health care staff — as if you being there is interrupting the personal conversation they are holding with others in their workplace?

You are not alone.

Although many who enter the health care field do so out of a desire to help others, over time, empathy can be lost. Empathy even declines during medical school training.

Part of this can be attributed to a need for those of us in health care to somewhat detach ourselves from a patient’s emotions. For example, part of my job is to perform phlebotomy, the act of drawing blood for medical testing. As a phlebotomist, we must be empathetic to a patient if they have a fear of having their blood drawn, but we understand that the duty must be performed to help the patient. That is, we can’t be so sympathetic to a fearful patient to say: “You’re right, this will likely hurt, so I won’t stick this needle in your arm.”

What about those working in health care who just don’t seem to care? Unfortunately, there has been an overall decline in empathy in society as a whole. Add to that the work conditions health care staff deal with on a daily basis: staff shortages, budget cuts and the general expectation to do more with less, and we’re looking at a recipe for disaster.

In spite of all this, for those of us who work in health care, it is time for us to take a moment and remember that ultimately, our job is to care for others. Our patients and their loved ones matter, not to mention are the reason we have a job. We need to put ourselves in our patient’s shoes.

In my job, I teach college seniors in a science-related field a year’s worth of college-level courses in clinical laboratory science. This helps to prepare them to become certified medical laboratory scientists so that they are qualified to perform lab testing on patient samples.

Because we spend most of our day tucked away in the lab, it could be easy to forget the patients behind the test tubes. I feel it is my duty to remind students to cultivate their empathy. Smile and greet our patients and their families as you pass them in the hallway. If someone looks lost, offer your assistance to help them reach their destination – and don’t just give directions, take them there. Hold a door for someone.

None of these actions cost a cent. And do you know what? When we have empathy and help others, we also get something in return — that awesome feeling that you’ve helped someone — even if it has been in a small way.

Maybe you’re thinking, “But wait, you help others when you do your job — why would you need to hold the door for someone, or direct someone to where they need to go?” The reason is that the physical act of interacting with another human being in a positive way — that makes you feel good!

Here’s another benefit of health care staff having empathy towards their patients: better patient outcomes and satisfaction scores. When we show our patients we care, they follow our instructions and take better care of themselves. They also feel more satisfied with their experience, and score higher on patient satisfaction surveys. We then are rewarded by increasing business
and revenue.

So the next time you prepare to interact with a patient (or their family), end personal, non-work related conversations with co-workers. Give your patient your full attention. Make them feel like they matter, and that they are important — because they are!

It all boils down to the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would like to be treated. Or, if you want to think of it this way, what kind of treatment would you like your child, mother, grandfather or partner to receive? Let’s take care of our patients like we would care for our family.

Christine Wheary is a clinical laboratory science program director who blogs at her self-titled site and can be reached on Twitter @cmwheary.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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