Saturday, February 15, 2014

More on the Brene Brown Empathy Video

My last post was about a brief video on expressing empathy that featured Brene Brown, PhD. You can find the video at:

Many liked the video, though some colleagues who are experts in clinician-patient communication felt that Dr. Brown was off target in her conceptualization of sympathy. Dr. Dennis Novack, Professor of Medicine and Associate Dean of Medical Education at Drexel University College of Medicine, wrote:
"I like what she says about empathy, but disagree completely with her definition of sympathy, which really undermines the value of the video for me. Sympathy is derived from the Greek sympatheia which means "feeling with." In one sense it might be empathy on steroids. We send a sympathy card to someone because we feel the loss as well. We feel sorrow for and with another, though maybe not as deeply, and in some ways identify with the other. 
The classic studies of Nightengale et al show that physicians who adopt a more sympathetic stance toward patients’ emotional situations do too many tests and perform CPR longer – they lose their objectivity (Nightengale, S.D., et al. JGIM:1991; 6:420-23.)
Empathy is conceived as a more objective process. All the actions you listed are components of the empathic process, that allow the physician to feel for patients and communicate that understanding, while still being able to make good decisions about their medical care free of the effects of the emotions elicited.By the way, a recent study Suely Grosseman and I and others recently did suggests that another component of the empathic process is checking to ensure that the patient got the empathic communication. We found that residents’ self-assessment of their empathic communication to standardized patients in 5 OSCE stations had zero correlation with SP assessments of their empathic communication."
Richard Frankel, Professor of Medicine, Indiana University School of Medicine noted the value of focusing on the interactional dynamics of empathy and referred interested folks to Jodi Halpern's use of the concept of "attunement" in her 2003 Journal of General Internal Medicine article (Halpern J. What is clinical empathy? Journal of general internal medicine. Aug 2003;18(8):670-674.) He added:
"Our group in Rochester also published a paper in 1997 in which we described the interactional dynamics of empathy, (Suchman AL, Markakis K, Beckman HB, Frankel R. A model of empathic communication in the medical interview. JAMA: the journal of the American Medical Association.1997;277(8):678-682.).
The model was later validated by Hilde Eide (Eide H, Frankel R, Haaversen AC, Vaupel KA, Graugaard PK, Finset A. Listening for feelings: identifying and coding empathic and potential empathic opportunities in medical dialogues. Patient education and counseling. Sep 2004;54(3):291-297)

Rich also endorsed the empathy video created by the Cleveland Clinic, featured in my March 23 2013 post:

I agree with both Dennis and Rich about the importance of both the cognitive and interactional aspects of emapthy and I, too, have found Jodi Halpern's conceptualization of clinical empathy quite helpful. Her thoughtful and erudite book, From Detached Concern to Empathy: Humanizing Medical Practice (Oxford University Press, New York, 2001) is highly recommended for all those interested in promoting and studying clinical empathy.
For those interested in learning more about clinical empathy, I also recommend the book, Empathy Reconsidered, New Directions in Psychotherapy (Eds: Arthur Bohart & Leslie Greenberg. American Psychological Association, Washington, 1997) which provides further perspectives on the role of empathy in clinical encounters, particularly in psychotherapy. I especially recommend the introductory chapter by the editors, in which they describe 3 different types of therapeutic empathy:
  1. "empathic rapport" - the clinician expresses understanding and acceptance of the client's feelings (this is closest to what Brene Brown was describing in the video);
  2. "experience - near understanding of the client's world" - a deeper understanding of the client's experience or "world". This usually results from exploration of the client's perceptions and reactions, including how the client's past experiences may have shaped their current emotional response; and
  3. "communicative attunement" - characterized by moment-moment attunement based on reflections or other attempts to understand what the client is trying to communicate.The therapist is actively trying to, not only understand what the client is saying, but also trying to "help the client make sense of their ever-emerging experience."
In a future post, I will share some simple strategies and approaches clinicians might use to enhance their capacity to develop empathic rapport.