Empathy: crucial for effective healthcare

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© GLOW IMAGES (model used for illustrative purposes only)

Can the caring at the heart of healthcare sometimes seem to get lost?

Many think it does, as classic family physicians have been increasingly replaced by time-constrained, clinical specialists.

Among doctors, such caring used to be called a “good bedside manner”.  And after more than a generation of specialized training focused on medical knowledge and technical acumen, the value of empathy is being re-discovered and taught as an essential skill.

It improves the experience of both patients and doctors when medical professionals express clinical empathy, according to the Kaiser Health news service.  The patient feels understood and cared about, has a better outcome and is more satisfied.  The doctor in turn gets a better rating, faces less risk of malpractice suits and experiences decreased burnout.  The whole system is benefited.  (SeeEfforts to Instill Empathy Among Doctors are Paying Dividends.”)

I too have learned how powerful empathy can be, in my journey as a practitioner of Christian Science healing.  But I view it from a slightly different angle.  To me, empathy for patients is not just a technique to show you understand another person’s emotions and share their feelings.  Rather, it’s at the core of our desire to help one another.  As children of a loving Creator, the capacity to care for each other is innate in all of us.

In that sense, you can’t take the care out of healthcare.   It surely must be the basic motivation to become a doctor or any kind of healing practitioner.

One barrier to empathy identified by the Kaiser Health article is that doctors can be “explainaholics.”   The tendency is to approach every situation with more and more words, as if piling on information and explanations will help patients deal with worries or discouragement.

Consequently, doctors are often surprised at how a simple gesture – a willingness to listen or express an understanding of what someone is going through – can mean so much to the patient and to the outcome.

I’ve certainly found that in my own healing practice.  Patiently listening to patients is vital.  Rather than cutting someone off due to time pressures or insensitively pounding in explanations, giving an individual the opportunity to be heard first can make a world of difference.  Then there is more mental and emotional space for a response of comfort or helpful ideas to be received.

The basis of my healing work is a textbook of spiritual healing called Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, by Mary Baker Eddy.  In a chapter titled “Christian Science Practice”, the author similarly counsels practitioners not to be explainaholics.

“The tender word and Christian encouragement of an invalid, pitiful patience with his fears and the removal of them, are better than hecatombs of gushing theories, stereotyped borrowed speeches, and the doling of arguments, which are but so many parodies on legitimate Christian Science, aflame with divine Love,” she writes.

Indeed, to offer just the metaphysical teaching that is at the center of my religion would not result in healing.  The words have to be animated by Christian affection and empathy to heal.  I know this from my experience as both a practitioner and a patient.

As the healer, it can be tempting to think that if I could just help this person understand the spiritual ideas they need to be clear about, then all would be well.  But such a focus on explanations can’t substitute for genuine caring.  If fear is first allayed by empathy and love, then spiritual understanding that brings healing to the body can follow.

As the patient, there have been times when I’ve asked a Christian Science practitioner for help from a very dark place.  I was so afraid or in pain, that I wasn’t receptive to a lot of metaphysical ideas.  At such times, practitioners have responded with patience, empathy, heartfelt prayer, even humor (when appropriate!).  And maybe offered a few ideas, too, if I was able to hear them.

It wasn’t so much what was said but how it was said that enabled me to receive the benefit of those insights.  What the practitioner said might have been right – the words I needed to hear – but the way they said it with empathetic love, was light.

Teaching empathy in a course is a great start, if we lack it.  But it is much more than a skill to be learned.  It’s a part of who we are.  The Scriptures tell us that “God is love” and that we are all created “in the image of God.”  As the image of Love, our true nature includes empathy.

So it’s normal to actually care enough about another person to put ourselves in their shoes and yearn for their freedom from pain – just as we would want someone to do for us.  It’s a way to live the golden rule – to love our neighbor as ourselves, as Jesus put it.  This isn’t just a noble goal but a very practical expression of our true nature.

For effective healthcare, let’s ensure care is its beating heart.  Empathy is a must!

PTSD Treatment: Symptoms or Souls?

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News reports on the current state of American veterans are beyond devastating — over 10 times more veterans have been lost to suicide than to combat operations in the same time period, at a rate that’s averaging 22 suicides per day!  My Virginia colleague, Richard Geiger, shares examples of treatments that go deeper and have more success than the standard drug-based, symptom-focused ones.  Here’s Rich….

After the showing of “American Sniper,” the audience around me at our local theater—perhaps like at yours—remained silent.  Long minutes passed before people quietly rose and shuffled out.

I think we were sharing heartbreak.

We were sharing an urgency for dominion over combat trauma called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  The number of affected veterans and families is growing.  And, as many dedicated care-givers work to find solutions, one fact is emerging:  one method of treatment does not fit everyone….

“The need for non-drug treatment options is a significant and urgent public health imperative,” says NCCIH Director Josephine Briggs, MD.  Urgent, because the need for cure is growing, and also because conventional drug treatments aren’t working over the long haul.  In many cases, drug dependencies are created instead–without any real cure in sight.

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Re-thinking our self imposed limitations

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The first words in my Twitter profile are:  “Breaking free of limits!”  So, I’m delighted to share this inspiring story from my British Columbian colleague, Anna Bowness-Park.  She tells how a shift in her mental approach freed her from fear and pain; and transformed what could have been a disaster into a “spiritual adventure.”  Here’s Anna….

Canadian Olympic gold medalist Adam Kreek was not happy.  A new member of the team was a better rower than him, consistently beating him at races.  Although annoyed, Kreek was also curious.  What made this young rower more successful?  So, over coffee he asked the question.  The response was surprising.  “I seek failure,” said his teammate.

Expanding this idea in an entertaining and thoughtful TedX Talk in Victoria in 2013, Kreek went on to explain his teammate’s comment.  Imagine yourself with a bubble around you.  That bubble is your self-imposed limitations; how you see your abilities and what you believe about your capabilities.  Kreek stressed that breaking through that bubble is the first step to understanding our true abilities.  It is a vital part of understanding how we unwittingly limit ourselves in every avenue of life, including our health.

What was interesting, was that Kreek’s teammate did not talk about diet, fitness or modern technology as what helped him be a better athlete.  He talked of a mental app; if you like,  a change of thought about how he sees himself….

This is something I learned in a small way that forever altered how I see life….

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Malala Yousafzai and the healing power of forgiveness

malala1The world seems caught up in an endless cycle of attack and retribution.  Whether on an intimate, national or global sectarian level, mankind seems hopelessly drawn toward answering violence with violence.  But there is another way.  My colleague from British Columbia, Anna Bowness-Park, explains how one young girl’s example of forgiveness is having a powerful healing effect and leading us to peace.  Here’s Anna…

Is there a way to heal the effects of violence in our communities?

2014 Nobel Peace Prize co-winner, Malala Yousafzai, is not only convinced there is, but she lives what she believes.  At just 15 years old, she survived a brutal attack by a young “Talib” who shot her in the head on a school bus in Pakistan.  Her crime – in his eyes – was having the audacity, as a girl, to want to work toward an education!

When speaking at the United Nations in 2013, she said she knew her life was threatened long before the attack, and wondered what she would do if faced by a man with a gun.  She remembered thinking to herself:

“If he comes to kill me, what do you do, Malala?  I thought I would take my shoe and hit him.  Then I thought, ‘if you hit a man with a shoe, you would be no different to the Talib.  You must not treat others with that much cruelty and that much harshly.’”

In this description of her first reaction to the Taliban threat, we may think it merely the self-defence response of a child.  But in her culture, to throw a shoe at someone is a mark of deep disrespect.  What Malala was really saying is that disrespect was not on her agenda.  She wanted to have a conversation – to show respect for her attacker, rather than contempt and hatred.

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How Christmas relates to healing

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I grew up not knowing the real origin of Christmas.  Our family still celebrated Christmas (and Hanukkah) with presents and decorations, food and fun.  But I wasn’t familiar with the story of Jesus’ birth, which as the saying goes is “the reason for the season.”

Fast forward to early adulthood, where I’d begun to read the Bible and practice spiritual healing through Christian Science.  I experienced quick healing of a wound – in a way that would be considered physically impossible.

One evening, I was trimming my mustache and slipped.  The scissor blade went deep into my upper lip.  At that moment, along with pain and surprise, I had another response that came from my spiritual study.

I recalled an account I’d read that day about a woman working in a restaurant.  While using an electric appliance with one hand, she reached out with the other to turn off a dripping faucet – causing a huge electric shock to grip her.Continue Reading

#GratitudeChallenge: From the Trivial to the Transformational

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My Massachusetts colleague, Ingrid Peschke, examines current gratitude fads.  She drills down to the profound, healing impact that true thanksgiving can have on our health and happiness.

She observes, “I’ve found that gratitude can be most beneficial when it feels as though there’s nothing to be grateful for.  In those dark moments, I’ve gotten better at detecting a deceptive view of my circumstances and focusing on the good instead.”  Here’s Ingrid…

My Facebook feed this summer included a steady stream of lists from friends who accepted one of the numerous gratitude challenges circulating social media spheres.  I read their posts with curious interest, but I secretly hoped I wouldn’t be asked to take on the challenge, too!

Sharing gratitude in an open forum can sometimes come off as trite.  Besides, people seem to be popping gratitude like it’s the latest wonder drug.  A recent Salon.com article addresses the current Western trend toward gratitude and mindfulness as a kind of “spiritual meritocracy,” or spirituality lite.  The author writes:

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Defeating fear of Ebola will help defeat Ebola

© GLOW IMAGES (model used for illustrative purposes only)
© GLOW IMAGES (model used for illustrative purposes only)

I’m not an authority on dealing physically with contagious diseases but I do know about handling fear.  I’ve learned that stopping fear of disease can go a long way toward stopping disease itself.

The Christian Science Monitor quoted Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank Group:  “There are two kinds of contagion, one is related to the virus itself and the other is related to the spread of fear about the virus.  Both contagions must be defeated.”

This Daily Mail article agrees that worry and fear are often unhealthy and linked to various health problems:  “Ebola: A crash course in fear and how it hurts us.”  (See related article, “Five Rock Solid Ways to Master Fear.)

Just how connected the contagion of fear about Ebola is to the actual spread of the virus is becoming more widely understood.  What happens in our thinking does not stay in our thinking.  Fears can be manifested in our bodies.  Protecting ourselves and our communities from Ebola and wiping it out, is as much about what we do mentally as physically.
Continue Reading

Is spiritual-based healing weird?

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Photo courtesy Zach Alexander, licensed under Creative Commons

My Texas colleague, Keith Wommack, uses a simple analogy to explain how spiritualizing our thinking to heal our body can go from new and strange, to natural and effective.  Here’s Keith…

While in a meeting, a newspaper editor, after learning that I practiced spiritual-based healing, said, “Since Christian Science is weird, it … “

The editor stopped mid-sentence, looked at me, and said, “Oh, I’m so sorry.  I didn’t mean to say weird. I’m so sorry.”

After the editor apologized several more times, I said, “Forget about it. It’s okay,” and we went back to our pleasant discussion.

The editor’s “Weird” comment reminded me of ’73.  In 1973, I was in Brad Shearer‘s kitchen.  Brad and I attended high school together.  He was a star football player who went on to play for the Texas Longhorns and the Chicago Bears.

While in Brad’s kitchen, I watched as he took a large glass measuring cup and cracked eight eggs into it.  After whipping the eggs, he opened the door of a small machine, placed the measuring cup inside, closed the door, and turned a dial.  A minute or so later, he opened the door, took out the cup, and began eating the eggs with a fork.  Weird!

Weird, because in ’73 I had never heard of, much less, seen a microwave oven.  How did those eggs cook in just a minute?

Just as the microwave seemed weird to me in ’73, the thought of providing prayer for illness or pain can seem the same to you when you first encounter it.  However, both are effective.  Both utilize laws.  The microwave transforms food. Spiritual treatments can transform people.  Both accomplish this from the inside out.

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Moving beyond drugs to find health

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As summer slips away again, I’m reminded of how walking along the seashore listening to the continuous sound of crashing surf can clear our head and allow fresh perspectives.

In the local Walgreens parking lot, I had a beach-like moment and found an answer.  A CVS store had opened up on the other end of the same block and I puzzled over how these stores were both thriving while selling identical merchandise.

As I stood listening to waves of traffic, the answer hit me:  drugs.  They are drug stores.  There’s an insatiable demand for prescription and non-prescription medication.   People’s search for health is relentless.  Everyone needs to be healthy.

But are drugs the only way?

Reports say a lot of us don’t think so.  In addition to mega-dollars spent on drug-based health care, Americans also spend almost $34 billion each year out of their own pockets on alternative treatments.  Even 3 out of 4 U.S. health care workers use some form of complementary or alternative medicine (CAM) to stay healthy.

Prayer is no longer listed as part of CAM but the statistics still show an increasing percentage of people pray about their health.

I’m part of those statistics….Continue Reading

Our ‘inalienable right’ to better health

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We have the right to be free of ill-health.  In that spirit, my California colleague, Eric Nelson, shared this.  I actually saw the play he refers to when it had its world premiere in Minneapolis at the Guthrie Theater.  I’m glad to hear these comments from the playwright.  Here’s Eric…

Tony Kushner can write. In fact he writes so well, he has received a Pulitzer Prize, two Tony Awards and, just last year, an Academy Award nomination for best adapted screenplay (“Lincoln”).

Tony Kushner also recognizes good writing.

During a recent radio interview to promote the west coast premier of his latest play, “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures,” he made a point of praising the prose of someone whose work features prominently in the play’s title: Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the Christian Science Church and author of “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures.”

“Mary Baker Eddy was a really wonderful writer,” said Kushner. “And she writes gorgeously. [Science and Health is] endlessly quotable. And I sorta fell in love with it. I didn’t become a Christian Scientist, but I found it tremendously moving.”

To commemorate the upcoming celebration of our nation’s independence, here’s a timely sample from “Science and Health” that relates both to humanity’s continued quest for freedom and, as Eddy puts it, our “inalienable right” to less suffering and better health:

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