Early on in my podiatric medical education, one of my professors casually mentioned during a lecture how important it was for physicians to have empathy for their patients. In those youthful days, I knew what the word “empathy” meant. I imagined that it would probably be a good idea for me to try to develop this skill of being empathetic since having this quality may allow me to better understand what my patients were going through. By being empathetic, I could help them more as their podiatric physician.
What exactly does it mean to have empathy and why did my professor think it was important for all of us podiatry students to also have empathy for our patients? In order to be an empathetic physician, I need to project myself into the lives of each of my patients. I need to make an effort to understand their emotions and need to attempt to comprehend any special situations that may be complicating their ability to heal completely from their podiatric complaint. In other words, metaphorically, in order to have empathy as a podiatrist, I should be attempting to “walk a mile in my patients’ shoes.”
In the visits I have had over the years with my own personal physicians, I have come to greatly appreciate the doctors who have taken the time to sit down, patiently listen to my complaints, ask intelligent questions in a caring manner about my problems and, by their manners and words, give me the impression they truly understand both the physical and psychological aspects of my medical condition. As a patient, I can feel the empathy that these talented physicians have for me. When they listen and respond to my questions in a thoughtful and courteous fashion, I come away from the office feeling that they have a genuine concern for my well-being.
For my busy practice, even though I continually strive to be empathetic to all my patients, it can be quite a struggle at times. It often takes extra time to try to understand the psychology, motives and feelings of all of my patients during a hectic day. The patients who I have the most difficulty in being empathetic for are those that have physical conditions, lifestyles or emotional needs that are very different from what I have experienced in my own life.
For example, since I have never had a weight problem, I find it hard to put myself in the place of my morbidly obese patients who are struggling with losing enough weight so they can walk even a few steps without foot pain.
Not being a woman, I have difficulty understanding the social pressures that cause many of my female patients to put their feet into shoes that are too small and tight fitting, which ultimately prevents them from walking throughout the day without foot pain.
Also, never having had a condition that causes chronic pain, I find it difficult to fully appreciate the psychological and physical stress that my patients with chronic pain — such as those who have chronic regional pain syndrome — may have in walking, resting comfortably or even being able to have a night of uninterrupted sleep.
What then does it mean for podiatrists to have empathy for their patients? It means that podiatric physicians should treat patients the same way they would want one of their loved ones or friends to be treated. Having a caring attitude, taking the time to patiently listen to patients’ complaints and asking questions about their lives shows patients that treating podiatrists can project themselves into the patients’ own lives and have empathy for them.
Thirty years after my professor first taught me about the importance of empathy, I realize more every year that having empathy for patients is one of the most important skills a physician can possess. Empathy is a quality worth striving for and worth improving upon throughout our practice careers. Being able to improve the lives of our patients through a greater personal understanding of their lives is the most significant benefit that the podiatric profession can offer to the medical profession.
When was the last time you made a genuine effort to “walk a mile in your patients’ shoes”?
Dr. Kirby is an Adjunct Associate Professor within the Department of Applied Biomechanics at the California School of Podiatric Medicine at Samuel Merritt University in Oakland, Calif. He is in private practice in Sacramento, Calif.