Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Stressing the other

Stressing the other : "The experience was excruciating, an needless act of emotional abuse where kindness would have required little effort. It was also, I suppose, no more and no less cruel than thousands of such encounters that occur every day in the health service, not just with technicians, but with doctors, clerks, or just about anyone with degree of power to exercise and who lacks insight—whether for a passing moment or a whole lifetime—into what it feels like to be the other. We all have our explanations for such behaviour. They include multiple failings at the collective level: in the department, the hospital, the health service, and the nation. We also have our own preferred prescriptions for the problem, such as better pay and conditions, improved team morale, enhanced training, attractive incentives, consumer choice, becoming a more compassionate society, and so on and so forth.

The philosopher Martin Buber taught that we all live with a two-fold attitude, which he called the ‘I-It’ attitude and the ‘I-Thou’ attitude. ‘If I face a human being as my Thou’ he argued, ‘he is not a thing among things, and does not consist of things’. In the same corridor as the ECG technician, there is a secretary who is outstandingly helpful, although presumably she shares many of the same work conditions as the technician. I know her name, her direct line and her email address. She always remembers my name, what I do, who I am seeing and why. When I contact her, she seems to operate from the premise that my request is going to be reasonable and that she will try her utmost to make sure it is met. I believe she treats everyone else in the same way. Without the active will, and the moral choice, of people like her, I suspect that all the well-meant interventions of politicians, managers and educators to improve the way patients are treated will subside into mere noise. Or to put it in Buber's words: ‘All true living is meeting.

Nurses and paramedical workers play such a key role in humanising the medical care patients receive. How can we teach them to be more empathetic ?

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