Saturday, October 2, 2010

CBC News - Canada - The limits of feeling someone else's pain

CBC News - Canada - The limits of feeling someone else's pain

Interesting article that questions the value of empathy in some situations, particularly in the political contex.

The author also quotes an article by a physician, Jane Macnaughton, in a recent journal of Lancet who writes that feeling the distress of patients can be "unhelpful and even dangerous". Dangerous? Well, if one is in the midst of a delicate proceedure, maybe. And, sure, it may be emotionally and physically exhausting to work in a setting that exposes us to the pain of those who are suffering. We all have limits, and as professionals, we must learn to measure our own internal reserves, and find ways to replenish them when we are depleted.

Macnaughton apparently also writes that a doctor who says "I understand how you feel" can be perceived as insincere, provoking resentment from the patient. I agree that clinicians must be careful not to use this rather paternalistic response when a patient expresses a strong emotion. They also need to be careful not to prematurely assume what the patient is feeling. However, genuine efforts to understand the a patient's distress will almost always be valued and appreciated, especially when reflected back to the patient to check for undertanding. Softer responses like, "I can imagine" or "I think I understand what are you feeling" are more likely to be fully accepted by the patient.

I will go read the original Lancet article...look for more on this later.

However, in my own experience, one can never be too empathic.