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Empathy is an Essential Skill

I came across a very interesting article which I believe we should take time to review and consider the empathy in our caring and not just the technical skills needed.

The article (cited below in APA 5th edition formatting for those who are in school) is a study conducted regarding empathy and how nursing students are encouraged to be empathetic. While it is a small study the findings are similar to previous studies on the same subject.

Ward, J., Cody, J., Schaal, M., & Hojat, M. (2012). The empathy enigma:
An empirical study of decline in empathy among undergraduate
nursing students. Journal of Professional Nursing, 28, 34-40.

Nurses must have empathy for patients, allowing patients to not only have their physical needs met, but also the psychological and emotional support needed to heal. In the above article the authors stated that “empathy is central to the nursing role and has been found to be associated with improved patient outcomes and greater patient and family satisfaction with care” (¶ 2).

Despite the essential part empathy plays in the nurse/patient relationship many students score very low on tests measuring empathy. Something I found interesting was that students who were entering nursing as a second or third career scored lower than those entering nursing as a first career. Students with prior degrees in business or the sciences and those with more previous exposure to clinical settings displayed significantly lower scores in empathy then other students.

I certainly feel that the majority of people who choose nursing do so because they want to help others; sometimes it is forgotten or left behind as we move forward in our careers or feel overwhelmed learning new skills and the language of medicine.

What can YOU do to help foster empathy?

• Develop a program which preceptors are educated in techniques to aid in enhancing and role-modeling empathy towards others.

• Screen and carefully select preceptors to orient and mentor new staff members.

• Use “empathy training”. Some methods include putting ear-muffs on to decrease hearing, putting petroleum jelly on sun glasses to decrease visual acuity, requiring the use of the non-dominant hand to feed self or perform other tasks, or use a wheelchair or walker.

• If possible, tape the “empathy training” sessions to critique and come up with alternative ways to interact.

• One facility I worked at had a weekly “Caring Heart” award to recognize a staff member from any department in the hospital who went above and beyond to care for patients and their family members. It made the staff and visitors more aware of how simple acts make a big difference.

We must ask ourselves what being empathetic means to us personally and professionally. Empathy is an essential skill for all but especially for health care professionals.

I encourage each of you to look honestly at your own practice. Perhaps every day for a few weeks you can write out your thoughts and feelings from your just completed shift. Now, look over what you wrote, think about your words and even ask some colleagues for input. What strikes you as main themes and thoughts? What can you do to improve?

The use of SOAP charting is useful in making an empathy care plan.

S: What subjective items are on your list or in your notes? What have others said and what have you said?

O: Objective data: what patient behaviors did you see in response to things you said and did during care? What did YOU feel, see and experience? How did family members and colleagues react to things you said and did?

A: Assess what you have written. Is there a trend? Do you seem to get angry quickly with certain types of patients? Are you someone others approach to get your opinion or to ask you to help them?

P: Now that you have collected and assessed your data what plans do you have to improve your actions towards others? Could you suggest empathy inservices from your clinical educator? Would you prefer to sit down with your spiritual advisor? What ways do you feel you can help role-model and enhance the practice of empathy in students and new health care professionals?

Nurses ARE caring individuals and sometimes we let the busyness of our days cloud our commitment to not just being a great clinical nurse but a caring and empathetic nurse in all we do.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas on how to enhance empathy in ourselves and being a role model for others. Have you seen a program that has worked? If you are a nursing educator what steps are you taking to reach out to those “more experienced” students who may not express empathy as they should?



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