The art of empathy to become a better healthcare professional

20170101080000, Zayani Bhatt
Kindness and compassion are essential prerequisites for all healthcare professional.
Kindness and compassion are essential prerequisites for all healthcare professional.
Medical practitioners are some of the hardest-working, most stretched professionals in the world. Not only do they have to remain sharply aware of their patient’s physical needs to prevent medical negligence, they also have to stay attuned to the emotional needs of their patients, ensuring that they are comfortable and as at ease as possible whilst receiving treatment.

Unfortunately, incredibly long hours and huge numbers of patients mean that medical staff are often left feeling tired and irritable. Picking up on this, some patients become uncomfortable and hesitant to share their health concerns.

Dr Alex Mermikides however, a senior performance studies professor at Kingston University in the UK, has found a way to use art to help nursing students overcome empathy exhaustion with their patients.

Art can help doctors see things from another perspective

Functioning as both a stand-alone piece of theatre and as a workshop for nursing students, Mermikides has created a play wherein performers act as nurses who perform their normal duties such as administering IV drips and charting vital signs but in the form of a dance routine which they repeat until they fall out of sync and become clumsy.

The nursing students lie on beds as patients, which allows them to see how their mood, mannerisms and body language especially after a long hard day can affect patients. As nurse-in-training Michal Kaim puts it, “With a heavy workload, it’s easy to be too task-oriented and end up striding around briskly, concentrating on medical details rather than the human being in the bed.”

Allowing students to practice for different scenarios with different patients who have varying empathy requirements is also tremendously beneficial and many schools hire professional actors who are given the role of a patient with a specific illness or disorder to play, with the student as doctor.

Ronak Patani, an actor regularly hired for this says, “I once had to play a man who wanted to go to war because he believed he had been given the power to help stop people suffering simply by looking at them. The doctor had to accept and deal with that level of delusion because challenging it head on would yield negative reactions from the patient. It helps doctors think on their feet.”

A multi-method approach is needed

Developing communication, self-awareness and teamwork skills can also help minimise the risk of misunderstanding. Fluent in the language of their trade, many doctors think their instructions to a patient are clear but can leave confused patients at danger of medicating incorrectly. For instance, it may sound odd but one study found that getting doctors to explain how to make a peanut butter sandwich to someone who does not speak English sharpens their communication skills.

Penn State College of Medicine in the US is also using art to enhance how medical students learn, through the medium of comics. Drawing comics of doctor-patient interactions forces medical students to become acutely aware of the world around them and observe factors like body language, facial expressions and the mannerisms of their patients. Many schools in the US now teach students to study paintings to learn to trust their diagnostic skills through observation and not just rely on technology.

Virtual reality is another fantastic tool in showing us a world different from our own. Embodied Labs hopes to use virtual reality headsets to show medical students who are often young, what it feels like to be old. The headsets assume the point of view of an elderly man with visual and audio impairments who therefore struggles to understand his doctor.

Interdisciplinary training with all areas of medical staff such as pharmacists, doctors and nurses, enables an exchange of skill sets. Self-care techniques such as breathing and relaxing exercises done by actors before going on stage, aid nurses in orienting and composing themselves before their shift.

Ultimately though, these techniques serve to motivate and lift the morale of overworked medical staff as Kaim stated, “Elevating nursing to the level of art gave me another reason to be proud of the choice I have made to become one.” MIMS


Read more:
Mastering the art of empathy benefits both doctors and patients
6 tips for being a transformational nurse leader
Healthcare professionals: 4 non-verbal ways of communication that you should be using with your patients
Nurses: Here's how empathy can help you deal with workplace conflicts

Sources:
https://www.theguardian.com/healthcare-network/2016/dec/14/theatre-show-teaching-student-nurses-compassion
http://www.medicalroleplayers.co.uk/about2
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1168921/
http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/22/well/live/what-doctors-can-learn-from-looking-at-art.html?_r=0
https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Michael_Green21/publication/256469705_Teaching_with_Comics_A_Course_for_Fourth-Year_Medical_Students/links/54a1744c0cf267bdb902be4e.pdf