Understanding the power of empathy

Serving family caregivers as well as patients

Dr. Michelle Lobchuk understands that effective hospital care requires more than surgery, medicine, and rehabilitation. A good hospital experience, she believes, is anchored by empathy.

“The art of healing is really about good listening and paying attention to what people’s needs are and reflecting back,” says Dr. Lobchuk, a specialist in Caregiver Communication, Psychosocial Oncology, and Cancer Nursing Research at St. Boniface Hospital Research. “As healthcare providers, we’re really taught well how to be good technicians, but we have to be careful about that because it’s more than just fixing the plumbing and the circuitry and the circulation. It’s about tending to people’s hearts.”

Dr. Lobchuk is connected to several research projects – both as a researcher and as a consultant – that are designed to truly understand how nurses can improve the hospital experience for patients and their loved ones through demonstrations of empathy.

“It’s about tending to people’s hearts.”

 Teaching empathy

One of Lobchuk’s projects involves teaching nursing students how to incorporate better listening and greater empathy into their work. They are asked to practice specific empathic behaviours for two weeks and are then invited to interact with a family caregiver on camera. Their interactions are observed and analyzed, using the same video equipment and software that a professional hockey coach might use to analyze a game.

“The student will have already practised empathic dialogue, we will videotape it and then play it back to the student nurse so that they can identify where they felt they should have recognized thoughts and feelings that the caregiver was trying to relay to them,” she explains.

Helping without judging

The practice and the analysis help nurses “to really listen” and understand the needs and stresses of family caregivers, and offers a special focus on caregivers’ own health behaviors. The work includes the use of a computer-based risk assessment tool that was developed by a colleague to help enter into conversations with patients about health behaviours and lifestyle. With Lobchuk, the tool is used with family caregivers to identify health patterns that empathic nurses can help caregivers address without pre-judgment.

“The psychological stresses of being a family caregiver can lead to obesity, depression, and other health risks,” says Dr. Lobchuk. “We’re really trying to train people to walk inside these people’s shoes.”

In another project to which Dr. Lobchuk is connected as a co-investigator, researchers are looking at the use of mobile technology by nurses at the patient’s bedside and how it can help nurses assist patients without compromising their communication with each other.

“Consistently over the years, nurses say they use human resources the most to get information – asking colleagues for information at the bedside. Accessing research hasn’t been easy for them. Now the trick is to use mobile devices where they care for patients so that they can access the state of the science information to help them make decisions. But yet at the same time, is it a good thing? Does it detract from the interaction with the patient and the family? We don’t know,” says Dr. Lobchuk in describing the need for the research.

 Understanding bad behaviours

Other research is looking at how empathy and good communication need to be employed when working with patients whose poor health has been affected by their own behaviours, such as smoking or other behaviours that society might label as “taboo.” “People do tend to engage in these kinds of behaviors for a reason. It’s not because people are bad, but often it’s because of their relationships, their jobs, what’s going on in the family, and/or a great deal of stress to which leads people to certain negative outcomes or where they end up in the hospital,” says Dr. Lobchuk. She says that for these patients and their families, it’s important to look beyond traditional “quick fixes just in terms of measuring the blood levels, doing the blood pressure checks, again checking the plumbing, the circuitry, the circulation.”

For Dr. Lobchuk, all of this research connects very closely to providing high-quality care to patients and meaningful support to their families. It also empowers nurses and adds to the satisfaction they can derive from their work. “I see research as an instrument helping me to be a better human instrument to promote patient outcomes,” she says. “Often nurses will say ‘I’m not heard’. Research helps to capture their voices.”

For more information on Dr. Lobchuk’s research please visit: sbrc.ca/lobchuk

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