PHT402: Empathy and professional practice

This is my first post for the #pht402 professional ethics course that I’m participating in for the next few weeks. The topic for the first week is to explore personal objectives related to empathy and professional practice in the health care context.

384002I’ve been teaching the Professional Ethics course at UWC for five years and have always found it to be both deeply stimulating and deeply unsatisfactory. It’s stimulating because the classroom conversation around morally ambiguous situations is challenging and invigorating. I love seeing the different ways that students think about and respond to ethical dilemmas. However, I was always disturbed when the same students who could tell me about the SASP Code of Conduct and the HPCSA ethical rules of conduct were unknowingly unethical in their treatment of patients. I realised that knowing about ethics was different to being ethical.

As I delved into the problem I became increasingly interested in the concept of empathy and it’s role in both patient care and student learning and have recently begun to explore it in more detail. It turns out that “the roots of morality are to be found in empathy“, conveyed nicely in the quote that Lauren used at the start of her post this week:

When you think like this, when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathise with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers; it becomes harder not to act; harder not to help.

I think that this is the crux of what it means to care in the context of health care. To really come to an understanding of what the other person is experiencing. I think that some of these ideas come out really nicely in the conversation happening in the comments on Chantelle’s blog. I can’t imagine a more distressing situation than a mother who is worried about her child. How do you connect with someone who is going through something that you haven’t? How do you say to them, “I understand”, when you don’t? Chantelle talks about the value of human connection and I have to agree with her completely. You can have all the knowledge and skills in the world but if you can’t connect to other human beings, you’re going to be a pretty mediocre physiotherapist.

My own interest in the role of empathy is less about patient contact and more about my interactions with students. As much as I know (and research has shown) that having an emotional connection to your learning is essential, most students have the same challenges as Umr does when it comes to “sharing”. However, even though moving into these personal spaces is difficult, I believe that it is only through developing relationships between people that human beings can truly flourish. As Marna suggests in her post, if you’re oblivious to this patient’s life beyond your doors, it’s unlikely that you’ll make any progress with them. I also believe, as Charde has learned for herself, that connecting with patients goes beyond the simply technical “compliance” rationale and helps to develop a sense of professionalism and deeper, more meaningful engagement with others.

During this course I hope to learn more about how physiotherapy students at the University of the Western Cape think about, and respond to, morally ambiguous situations. I believe that universities are the places where we need to develop the human capabilities that will enable transformative social change and I like to think that this course is one small space where we can give it a go. I will be following as many blogs as I can, reading and commenting where possible, in an attempt to get a better understanding of how students think, so that I can learn how to be a better teacher.