Lacking Empathy Has a Domino Effect from Childhood to Adulthood
Are we losing the capacity to reach out and understand people? Is the age of electronics keeping us from listening and conversing face-to-face with others? Has instilling intense competition into child-rearing encouraged the loss for human connection and involvement in community? And, most importantly, how does it impact our health issues, particularly in doctor/patient relationships? Clearly, it does.
Teaching empathy is an important aspect of how we raise children. The false myth that children will be taken advantage of if they are too kind, especially among boys, has created unsympathetic adults. Those lacking empathy usually do worse in life than children who have that capacity. For one thing, their personal relationships are more fraught with dissension because they don’t understand how the other person feels.
On Tuesday, December 25, 2007 in the Washington Post, Douglas LaBier, a PhD, business psychologist, and psychoanalytic psychotherapist had this to say:
“You may not realize it, but a great number of people suffer from EDD.
“No, you’re not reading a misprint of ADD or ED. The acronym stands for empathy deficit disorder.
“Based on my 35 years of experience as a psychotherapist, business psychologist and researcher, I have come to believe that EDD is a pervasive but overlooked condition with profound consequences for the mental health of individuals and of our society. People who suffer from EDD are unable to step outside themselves and tune in to what other people experience. That makes it a source of personal conflicts, of communication failure in intimate relationships, and of the adversarial attitudes — even hatred — among groups of people who differ in their beliefs, traditions or ways of life.”
There’s no question that there is a pervasive goal in society to accumulate wealth and material objects as symbols of achievement. When that value is interjected into a child, via intense competition, it can produce young adults, unwilling to help anyone out of fear that person will supersede them in the climb up the ladder.
It’s natural to want our children to do better than their parents, but if taken too far it may well instill the opposite values needed to be a compassionate human being. Many parents push childhood sports to over-the-top proportions. Children are registered for the best private schools, those known to get children admitted to the Ivy League colleges, while still in utero. These are a smattering of examples. But those attitudes set an atmosphere early in life that is the antithesis to instilling empathy.
Applying for college admissions raises the stakes, especially when it comes to medical school. There are still huge numbers applying for a limited number of places, and with Obamacare, by 2025, we will need approximately 130,000 additional physicians. We must look at how lack of empathy impacts our health issues.
This lack of understanding in human relationships sets up the groundwork for poor doctor/patient relationships. The field of medicine is rapidly changing because so many doctors rely on medical machinery and devices to diagnose rather than listening and touching the patient. Reliance on mechanical devices as the prime choice in diagnosing patients has set up a vast chasm in this most important relationship. Before we had sophisticated technology, doctors needed to rely more on their educated intuition, utilizing in-depth interviews and examinations of patients.
October 11, 2010 in The New York Times, Denise Grady said:
Medical schools in the United States have let the exam slide, Dr. Verghese says, noting that over time he has encountered more and more interns and residents who do not know how to test a patient’s reflexes or palpate a spleen. He likes to joke that a person could show up at the hospital with a finger missing, and doctors would insist on an M.R.I., a CT scan and an orthopedic consult to confirm it.
“Dr. Machine Will See You Now …
Published: March 1, 2011
Re “Treat the Patient, Not the CT Scan” (Op-Ed, Feb. 27): NEW YORK TIMES, by Johanna Ferman
Martinez, Calif., Feb. 27, 2011
The writer, a doctor, is director of behavioral health, ambulatory care, in the health services department of Contra Costa County.
“As Abraham Verghese so aptly puts it, technology at the bedside is too often supplanting the hands-on physical exam in medical practice. The many errors that follow are both predictable and potentially catastrophic in overlooking critical clues to diagnosis, unnecessary testing and exposure to radiation. The costs mount as we lose the patient amid the wiring.”
A few years back I had the experience of taking my late husband to a specialist. The doctor told me that my husband was “…within normal limits” that was determined by a mechanical neurological test he’d taken. I tried to tell the doctor that my husband’s acting out was not within his so-called normal limits. He suffered from occasional fainting spells, temper outbursts, confusion and growing lack of understanding. The doctor refused to listen to me. I began to feel that perhaps I was overreacting and whiny. I didn’t pursue it further as I took him at his word. I know that diagnostic machinery is indispensable and invaluable to modern medicine but, as I found out, so is listening to the ones closest to the patient.
Within two month my husband was hospitalized with a massive stroke. As it turned out, prior to that devastating event, the fainting spells he was experiencing were mini-strokes and the behavioral issues were real. I wonder to this day what the results would have been had the doctor listened to me. Maybe the same – maybe not. At least he could have been watched more carefully and administered more appropriate medication. After my husband’s stroke he could hardly speak and he shuffled badly. Could better listening skills have mitigated these results?
This is what Jodi Halpern, MD, PhD had to say in the Journal of General Internal Medicine:
J Gen Intern Med. 2003 August; 18(8): 670–674.
doi: 10.1046/j.1525-1497.2003. MCID: PMC1494899 What is Clinical Empathy? Jodi Halpern, MD, PhD1
“…The medical team called for psychiatry to consult on a patient with Guillan-Barre syndrome who was depressed and refusing treatment. When I first came into the patient’s room, I noticed a flicker of interest in his eyes as he greeted me. He was completely paralyzed from the neck down. He greeted me by struggling to whisper a few words through his tracheotomy tube. The nurse gently adjusted his tube. I felt uncomfortable viewing his immobile body splayed on the bed, hearing him struggle.
“I spoke to him in a quiet, gentle way. As I spoke, he became withdrawn, literally looking away to end the conversation. I felt ashamed at imposing on him. Yet, when I thought about the shame, which led me to retreat, I wondered if this shame was also an emotion that came from resonance with him. Here he was, a powerful man, now suddenly paralyzed and exposed to all of his caregivers. My gentle approach to him clearly backfired—did he sense pity? I tried to change my tone, to see how he responded. I asked him, directly and assertively, what was bothering him about how we were treating him. He looked right at me and then began an angry tirade about how disrespected he felt. This engagement was the beginning of an effective therapeutic alliance.”
This was a very empathic method of treatment so often overlooked today. It is a meeting of technology and human understanding. The art of questions and listening must not be viewed as outdated. Total reliance on hi-tech devices has produced a wedge in human relationships.
An online article written in CommonHealth, Reform and Reality, by Rachel Zimmerman, a co-host for the journal, said:
“A large new cross-cultural study makes total sense to me: It found that diabetics whose doctors were more empathic fared better clinically and had fewer medical complications. The study doesn’t get into the why of things. But it suggests that the unique bond between patients and their doctors goes far beyond prescriptions and blood pressure checks.”
“Physician’s Empathy Directly Associated with Positive Clinical Outcomes, Confirms Large Study of Italian Diabetic Patients and found that: This large-scale research study has confirmed that empathic physician-patient relationship is an important factor in positive outcomes.”
Philadelphia, PA (PRWEB) September 12, 2012
“Patients of doctors who are more empathic have better outcomes and fewer complications, concludes a large, empirical study by a team of Thomas Jefferson University and Italian researchers who evaluated relationships between physician empathy and clinical outcomes among 20,961 diabetic patients and 242 physicians in Italy.”
We need to take heed of the different needs of all humans. To do this we must possess the capacity for empathy no matter which field of endeavor we are in. We need to utilize the old-fashioned option of communicating face to face. Let’s go back to teaching children the Golden Rule!
Fran Metzman is the author of, THE HUNGRY HEART STORIES, a novel entitled, UGLY COOKIES (co-authored with Joy Stocke) to be published in e-book format by Wild River Books. Also, she has published numerous short stories in various literary journal, and essays. She is fiction editor for the Schuylkill Valley Journal, has led workshops and taught about working with small presses at Rosemont College on the Main Line near Philadelphia. At work on a new novel, Metzman says that while truth may be stranger than fiction, fiction unleashes the unconscious.
As the Wild River Review’s Sexy G, Fran addresses her thoughts on relationships, women’s issues, and mature dating in her column, THE AGE OF REASONABLE DOUBT. She focuses on the complexities of relationships. Her work is based on scholarly research and a master’s degree in Social Gerontology from the University of Pennsylvania.
FACEBOOK: Fran-Metzman Written Work
Works by Fran Metzman
The Age of Reasonable Doubt: Is Romantic Chemistry Leading Us Astray?
The Age of Reasonable Doubt: Empathy? Is it Innate or can it be learned?
Empathy & Where it Starts: Bullying vs Empathy
Lacking Empathy Has a Domino Effect from Childhood to Adulthood
Lacking Empathy’s Domino Effect