Empathy – the human element?

We have just returned to civilisation after a holiday in the hills and it is extremely exciting to to see all the activity going on in all the course blogs.  There are some fantastic insights, links to related resources and some great conversations going on… I recommend you read Michael’s post to get a small insight into all of this if you haven’t already.

So I’m not a PT/Physio and so I don’t have that perspective (although I can try to empathise with you all!) however I have been a patient. I can remember one particular review appointment with my knee consultant following an ACL reconstruction many years ago. Rather than seeing the consultant himself I was seen by one of his younger assistants. The one thing I can remember from his review of my progress was his statement that my knee was now best kept under a desk rather than being used for anything active (I can’t remember the exact words used – but “under a desk” was something that stands out). He seemed to have made no attempt to understand me and the importance of my leisure activities, and hadn’t considered the implications of this medical advice on the rest of my life or how I might feel about that. Rather than get upset I took this as a challenge which I have enjoyed ignoring ever since. I can see that not everyone would respond to this situation in the way I have and that this assistant’s medical advice could have been much better if he had taken a little time to understand my lifestyle and offered advice which took this into account as well as the implications of the medical condition of my knee.


(image from http://www.freevectorsdaily.com/)

On reading some of your posts, and coming from a background of being an engineer and computer geek I found myself thinking about if a computer was to replace a physiotherapist how this would operate in a clinical scenario. In my thought experiment this computer would be extremely professional in recording and analysing all the symptom data and returning a statistically most likely diagnosis and therefore an appropriate treatment plan. However would this computer be a good physio? In attempting to be professional and clinically detached are medical staff aiming to respond as a computer/robot would in these situations?

I think it is empathy which is missing the element that a computer/robot physio could never provide. The fact that we are human and can respond to another human through our understanding of what it means to be human as well as draw on our area of expertise as objectively as we can.

So as a patient here is what I am looking for in my physio:

  • Avoid making assumptions about me
  • Ask questions so you can understand me
  • Take time to listen and digest my responses
  • Compose your advice so that it addresses my life as well as my condition
  • Oh and be very knowledgeable and confident too!

4 thoughts on “Empathy – the human element?

  1. Hi Tony. Thanks for giving us a perspective from the “other side”. We’ve all been on the therapist side of the fence but I wonder how many of us has ever been on the receiving end. I loved your list of things you’re looking for in a therapist, especially that the majority of the things on the list go way beyond simply having good technical skill and background knowledge. As a clinical educator, I know that my colleagues and I are pretty good at telling students what to know and what to do, but we’re pretty useless and getting them to learn how to be. Thanks for your unique insight.

  2. I think this research is right. I have winced many times as our car or my bike has hit a pothole and I wonder if this is me empathising with these inanimate objects. Thinking about a robot therapist trying to exhibit empathy is interesting. If empathy is conveyed by communication between the therapist and the patient, I wonder how much of this is verbal and how much is non-verbal. I suspect the non-verbal aspects are significant and so a non-human therapist is always going to be ineffective. For human therapists I think that means empathy needs to be entered into whole heartedly and not forced or simulated, as the non-verbal elements may otherwise conflict with the verbal messages used….

  3. Pingback: Reflections on Empathy, week 1 | wendywalker

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