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Is Empathy the Future of Medicine?

December 28, 2017
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Technology is advancing at a rate most people cannot even keep up with. The good news is that advancing technologies are designed to make tasks easier in less time with more precision, a great thing when something that can fit in a pocket, such as an iPhone, can streamline everyday life. The trouble arises when new technologies are designed so work so efficiently, they can replace the jobs of whole human beings. This has already been seen in factories and other sectors of the workforce. Medical Futurist reports that experts predict that Artificial Intelligence (AI) is on track to replace most jobs in the upcoming decades. But there are things in fields, such as medicine, that a robot could never replace. With "soft skills" that include creativity, empathy, compassion and the ability to connect and pay attention to each other, humans have the upper hand on more-cognitively tasked robots. In fact, we can already see this shift to more care-focused jobs. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that jobs for doctors and surgeons will grow by 14 percent by 2024 but the top three direct-care jobs—personal-care aide, home-health aide, and nursing assistant—are expected to grow by 26 percent. One of the best ways to show compassion and conquer the soft skills needed to be a physician is to learn how to cope with death. Death is a very natural part of medicine that all future doctors need to learn how to handle without coping methods like indifference or avoidance. US News advises medical students to volunteer at a hospice center now in order to show compassion and empathy to dying patients during their careers and follow these tips:

1. Be authentic

Talk to patients. Treat them like real people. Ask them how they grew up, about their career or where they have lived.

2. Listen with purpose

By practicing your active listening skills, you will be able to bring up previous conversions in future visits. This will show that you remembered what they told you and that you value them as a person.

3. Allow patients to talk about death

Let the patients you visit with talk about death as they need to. Don’t shut down the conversation by telling them “everything will be okay” or forcing the conversation when they don’t want to talk about it. Instead, simply ask them to tell you more if the topic comes up. Listen to them and connect to fears or fond memories they share.

4. Connect consistently

This is a good habit to establish early on so that your patients will feel supported and important. During extended time between visits, call or send the patient a note to let them know they are still valued.

5. Seek support

Make the social work team apart of your professional network. They deal with death and dying regularly so they have advice and tips on how to cope and prevent burnout.

6. Allow yourself to grieve

Over time, you will learn more about how you best cope with patients who are dying and death. Remember that it’s important to grieve and that everyone grieves differently. Often, physicians cope by confidentially speaking with colleagues and writing about emotions in a journal. No matter what field or specialty you might have in the future, keep in mind that empathy is one of the most important aspects that make a good doctor. Make connections to patients and remember that it is okay to feel emotional pain from the passing of patients but that it is a natural way of life and to properly cope with your emotions. After all, empathy may be the defining skill in the future of medicine.
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