Carolyn Thomas, a heart attack survivor and women’s health advocate, writes about the importance of kindness in health care practice in her popular Heart Sisters blog, starting with a story about her visit to the emergency room and subsequent placement in the cardiac care unit:
What I do vividly remember, however, is a small but profound act of kindness later that day when I was brought to my bed in the CCU (the cardiac intensive care unit). The nurse who came to greet me as my gurney was pushed off the elevator placed one gentle hand on my shoulder (and more importantly kept it right there as she walked alongside down the long corridor). As we moved, she bent lower over my head to speak slowly and softly into one ear, introducing herself and assuring me that I was “in the right place” – and that her whole team would do their best to take very good care of me while I was with them.
She goes on to reference, among other things, studies showing that medical students’ levels of empathy begin to decline during the course of their training:
Much of this interaction, however, depends largely on health care professionals’ ability to empathize – to imagine what it’s like to walk in the hospital booties of their patients.
So it’s shocking for many people to learn that, even among naturally kind and empathetic medical students, studies suggest that empathy for others begins to wane by the third year of med school as students progress. This is particularly true, apparently, for future doctors entering technology-oriented specialties – like cardiology.
Thomas’s article raises important questions about the training and education of those entering the helping and human service professions, especially fields such as health care, law, and social services.
For example, a healthy dose of training in client counseling should be an important part of a law school program, including the cultivation of greater sensitivity to a client’s emotional state during often stressful legal proceedings. Therapeutic jurisprudence, the school of legal thought that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of the law, legal practice, and legal education, takes these matters seriously.
To illustrate, in a 2010 law review article, “Employment Law as if People Mattered: Bringing Therapeutic Jurisprudence into the Workplace,” I devote a lot of attention to client counseling in the context of employment disputes, including the recognition that clients may be experiencing considerable anxiety and stress in view of the stakes involved.
These considerations should be examined against the broader canvass of emotional and social intelligence. As I wrote four years ago in a post on leadership:
For those who have the personal qualities to be effective leaders but lack the background and experience, leadership and management training programs emphasizing the so-called “soft skills” would help sensitize them to the human aspects of their jobs.
In fact, it’s arguable that basic management training should be part of all professional degree programs, such as medicine, education, law, and business. This initial exposure can be augmented by continuing education offerings for those elevated to leadership positions.
Maybe this seems like a lot in order to get back to the point of Carolyn Thomas’s blog post: How a nurse’s simple words of comfort and reassurance helped her to deal with a life-threatening health crisis. Nevertheless, in professions that, by their nature, must place great emphasis on analysis and problem solving, the human element needs reinforcing as well.
Hat tip to Peggy Berry for the Thomas article.