The Power of Empathy

What if I told you that your life, literally, could depend on the amount of empathy your physician has for you? Would that shock or surprise you?

What is empathy?

Empathy is often described as “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes,” or seeing an event or scenario from someone else’s perspective. Building and developing empathy is not typically part of medical training, so it may come as no surprise to you that non-emphatic interactions are common in the medical world.

Physician empathy with type 2 diabetes

It often comes out in charting, where the term “non-compliant” is used to describe those struggling with diabetes self-care. The term non-compliant sends the message that “this person did not do what I say or recommend and they have no regard for their health.”

That’s simply not true. There are very few, if any, people I’ve met who just flat out don’t care about their health. In my experience, people who deviate from their “prescribed” diabetes plan do so because they have barriers to self-care. Or perhaps were “given” a diabetes plan that does not fit their needs or match their values or resources.

For example, imagine something as simple as a dead battery in a glucometer. If you have cash and a vehicle, it’s a simple task to get a new battery for it. If you have limited cash flow, use the bus system to get around town, have difficulty walking long distances, and require assistance setting up the glucometer, it’s easy to envision how this could be a daunting task and may easily get delayed.

So “non-compliant”? I don’t think so...Barriers? Absolutely.

Research on diabetes and empathy

In my personal experience, empathy is one of the MOST powerful tools I have to support those living with diabetes. The research backs me up on this, too.

Studies on empathy are becoming more common, as many show a tremendous impact on your health. From something as simple as recovering from the common cold more quickly to decreasing your risk of death from heart-related events, empathy by your general practitioner (GP) has been shown to be important, to say the least.

When comes to diabetes, the impact of empathy by GPs is no different than general health studies. GPs with higher levels of empathy tend to have patients with lower rates of diabetes complications (like DKA and HHS) and better A1c and cholesterol levels.1

Empathy and risk of heart-related death

One of the most jaw-dropping studies was recently published in 2019. The study involved a group of people newly diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, who were asked to rank their GP’s level of empathy. These folks were followed for an average of 10 years after their diagnosis. The findings surprised even the researchers: Those who had a GP who was highly emphatic had a 40-50% lower chance of dying from a heart-related event over that 10-year period. Forty to fifty percent!1

The takeaway is that empathy is powerful. Not only do you deserve it, apparently, but it’s also something we all NEED in our healthcare. Maybe that GP relationship warrants a closer look.

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