Category Archives: Week 1

Week 1: Reflection

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After reading all the blog posts and comments from my fellow course participants, I felt the need to reflect and consider the opinions expressed and respect the complexity of human connection and personal preference or perception. I would like to end the week’s topic of empathy off by reflecting on and summarising my thoughts, before moving onto the next chapter, morality.

 

Avatar - I see you

This week’s topic of empathy made me think of Avatar the movie,
with it’s central theme of connection and understanding.

“Oel Ngati Kameie” – I see you (I see into your soul, I understand you)

 

What surprised me most was the difference of opinion on empathy, perception of vulnerability and it’s role in the management of our patients as health care professionals and most importantly as human beings. Noam talked about the “scale of empathy” and stated that “empathy is balance”, which made me realise that empathetic engagement and human connection is a choice.  It made me reflect on the relationships I have my my little patients and their families.  I must be especially cautious of the interrelation of empathy and sympathy when working in the sensitive fields of physiotherapy, as there is a dividing line: your professional objectivity and role as therapist and health care provider.  Mary summarised this so beautifully by sharing her volunteer work experience in times of disability, pain, resentment, heartache, disappointment, loneliness and death.  Furthermore, I was inspired by and drawn to the well written blog posts by Jackie, Marna and Charde, discussing interpersonal communication and the importance of empathy in practice and life. Furthermore, I came to realise after reading Thomas‘ blog post how important it is to reflect and learn from past experiences in order to grow as a human being and become comfortable with “feeling” and connecting with others.

 

A few of the student’s blog posts and Wendy’s opinion on the usefulness and necessity of empathy in practice, really made me take a step back and understand that personality, therapeutic environment (context) and personal preference, all influence how therapists choose to connect, engage and communicate with patients.

 

I am still of the opinion that  empathetic engagement is context-specific and central to human connection.  It remains a choice of when, if, how and to what degree one displays empathy whilst maintaining professional objectivity and respecting patient-therapist roles and boundaries.  I believe that altruism is universal and natural, but using empathy as a communication skill to connect with others requires development and nurturing.  For me, it is an essential part of holistic patient management and care.

 

As a spiritual being, I have chosen the Buddhist-philosophy and follow the Dharmapada (“the path of Dharma”).
I found this quote from an ancient Sanskrit script inspiring:

“Resolve to be tender with the young; compassionate with the aged;
sympathetic with the striving; and tolerant with the weak and wrong.
Sometime in your life, you will have been all of these.”

Gautama Buddha

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For PHT402 Professional Ethics Course 

Week 1: Empathy

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“The great gift of human beings is that we have the power of empathy.”
Meryl Streep, actress
empathy

Is it even possible to find a more complex and misunderstood word? A word that bridges the gap between human experience, reactive emotion, compassionate thought and altruistic connection.

The idea of empathy was first described in the 1880’s by a German psychologist Theodore Lipps, who coined the term “einfuhlung” (literally, “in-feeling/touch”).  For me, this definition of empathy best encompasses the full meaning of the word in neutral context: The process of appreciating and understanding a person’s subjective experience while maintaining some degree of professional or personal distance.

As a physiotherapist or health care provider, having empathy is to be concerned with a much higher order of human relationship and understanding of your patients. For me, empathy has been a crucial and required altruistic communication skill as I am faced on a daily basis with overwhelmed and anxious new moms with their newborns, and scared, devastated and at times unrealistic expecting parents of babies and kids with special needs or medical respiratory problems. Our patients expect a lot from us and trust us with their vulnerability. We have to be careful of becoming too emotionally involved or invested in our patients’ lives and human experiences, as you can loose your professional objectivity and blur the patient-therapist boundaries. It can also lead to emotional burn-out by making you feel like you are responsible for your patients’ happiness and solving all their problems. I am of opinion that maintaining a healthy, altruistic but professional relationship with all your patients is key.  By being honest with sensitivity and compassion, listening and observing with all your senses and just taking the extra time to let your patients or their families speak or ask questions, really help to build a trusting patient-therapist relationship and human connection without sacrificing your professional objectivity.  Having mild empathy enhances every facet of holistic management and patient outcomes.

In this fast-paced world driven by quantity rather than quality, it often happens that we forget the importance of human compassion and understanding.  We have all heard or know of health care professionals with “poor bedside manners”. They often speak using medical jargon, talk down to patients or their loved ones, don’t make eye contact, rush through each consult or therapy session, brush off or interrupt patients asking questions, raising their concerns or discussing aspects of their lives.  Many health care professionals consciously choose not to interact with their patients on an emotional level, as they don’t see the point or are unsure of how to deal with it as vulnerability means uncertainty and they only want to focus on objectivity and what they can control. There is a fine line between empathy with professional distance, and sympathy with personal involvement.  I believe as human beings and more important as health care professionals, we have the ability and responsibility to expand our perceptions, lean into the discomfort of vulnerability and spend a little more time focusing on others in need by treating them with common decency and respect.  Remember, you cannot treat others with compassion if you are not kind to yourself first.

Now the controversy… Can empathy be taught? Some may argue that empathetic engagement in patient care or society can be taught… Some believe that it can be enhanced by various emotional intellect and communication skills training programmes and experiences. Others are of the opinion that empathy comes from altruistic human nature, that it is an inherent emotional communication skill that elicits compassion and sensitivity, as all humans long for connection… But it is still a choice, to engage or not to engage….  Where do you stand?

I’ll leave you with Alanis Morissette:

“…Thank you for seeing me, I feel so less lonely.

Thank you for getting me. I’m healed by your empathy…”

Blog Post: Week 1, themed “Empathy”, for PHT402 Online Professional Ethics Course