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Page 775 – Stanford Medicine X

When Bubbles Converge: Growing empathy across the health care spectrum

Jeri Burtchell jeri.burtchell@healthivibe.com


Merriam Webster defines empathy as “the feeling that you understand and share another person's experiences and emotions; the ability to share someone else's feelings.” This comes more naturally to some people. Patient advocates are inherently empathic as they most often share the health condition they passionately represent. This shared experience, while individually unique, is relatable on a broader level. But is this empathy, borne of understanding, encapsulated in a bubble that excludes other health conditions?

As health care evolves toward a more patient-centric model and participatory medicine gains momentum, a capacity for empathy beyond our own experience is crucial to success. But is it possible to learn empathy for that which we do not understand?

Empathy requires vulnerability. Thinking about chronic, acute, or terminal health conditions evokes ideas humans fear most: pain, suffering, and death. To truly empathize—hence understand—the patient experience we must be willing to suffer their pain. But humans have learned to shield emotions and build mental walls of indifference where we can separate ourselves with thoughts like “them, not me.” For medical students, this has become a coping mechanism, a way to protect themselves from the emotional rawness of vulnerability. But in that process, empathy falls casualty.

To build empathy outside our own health experience, we must begin with active listening. No matter if you are a researcher hoping to learn more about the disease you are studying, or a family member coping with your loved one’s diagnosis, empathy grows through listening, observing, and absorbing the patient experience.

In this session, we learn how patient engagement can be leveraged to not only improve drug development, but to form the basis for a more empathetic society. 
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