Week One Empathy

Confession: When I first read about this course on the SASP page, I thought it would be easy enough to sail through, it has been nearly two weeks since my first post and I have only just completed my first post. It is not that the topics are hard, it is the calibre of writing that has already been done has made me very self aware of what I write and how I put those buzzy thoughts on blog.
My main objective for this course is to stimulate thinking and conversation in what I feel is a very interesting yet misunderstood and unliked aspect of physiotherapy and health care.

My opinion on Empathy is that it is one of the most important tool for all physiotherapists and healthcare professionals. We are tasked daily with treating a patients physical conditions which often is a manifestation or exacerbated by psychological stress placed on the body. The different forms of stress can negatively impact healing and this is something that we have to help them with.
In my experience when a patient comes to me, they come with a lot more than their physical injuries, there’s the anxiety with regards to the injury and long term affects and their frustrations at the limitations it imposes when at work. This is where the physiotherapist should listen and understand the patient’s issues and find a way without using explicit promises to reassure the patient that they will heal in time.

I agree with the article that empathy can’t be thought per se. I believe it can be developed over time by carrying out these simple steps.
1. Listen to your patients story.
2. Let it evoke an emotion, be it anger, sadness, hapiness and then use it that emotion to answer this simple question: If you were in that person’s place how would you want someone to respond to you.

You might not get it right the first time but over time by listening to your patients you can get the insight and empathy needed to help them.

Professional distance is probably the hardest part of this subject to define. I feel that in order to be effective with your patient you do need to know them well. It helps you to know if they are lying about carrying out the home exercise programme or if they are really in pain. To know them, you have to get close but you also have to be professional in your conduct with them. Its hard, but the therapist needs to strike that balance. If you feel that you are getting emotionally close to a patient, never step away or stop treating the patient. I feel that doing that would just cause more harm. Rather try to understand what is causing this sudden closeness and always speak to someone else to gain perspective and then find a solution to the problem. The most important things is the patients treatment, only the best will do.
Now don’t get me wrong, emotion is not a bad thing but when it begins to cloud your judgement or if you feel invested in the situation of a patient, then you’ve stepped over the line.



2 thoughts on “Week One Empathy

  1. Hi. Thanks for posting. I am sure you are correct that there is a line that should not be crossed. That phrase professional distance is spot on. Perhaps that is a gender thing, but I am sure that we MUST not get emotionally close to our patients. There is wisdom in the HPCSA discouraging practitioners from treating family members.

  2. Hi Shuaib. I hear what you’re saying about feeling a bit intimidated with the high calibre of the writing from course participants. Initially I said I was going to work on this course as a facilitator as well as a participant but almost regretted that when I saw the quality of the reflections. However, like you, I used that anxiety to try and push myself to think a bit more carefully about what I was writing.

    I agree with Bruce about how professional distance is essential but also with your comment that balance is important. How do we create enough of a relationship with patients that we can develop a sense of trust and connection but at the same time maintain enough distance to keep ourselves separate? I’m not sure what the answer is, only that it’s something that each of us needs to develop on our own.

    PS. Next year we’ll run the course again, but design it for qualified professionals who don’t have the same available time as the students do.

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