empathy in nursing, patient advocate, patient careI entered nursing at age 20 without ever having been a patient. I had always treated others the way I would want to be treated, but being a post-operative C Section patient four years later transformed the way I dealt with patients and their families. It taught me the importance of empathy in nursing.

I had always known nurses made a difference. But my labor nurse brought a new realization to just how much difference a caring nurse could make. 

Years later, I suffered heavy bleeding at the end of my third trimester of my third pregnancy. I was instructed to go to bed and see the physician first thing in the morning. The next morning, as we waited for the doctor to arrive, the office nurse quietly came in and found the baby’s heartbeat. She smiled and said, “I thought you needed to hear that.” I found this incredibly brave as there was a chance she would not find the heartbeat. She knew we needed to know one way or the other.

What is Empathy?

Such nursing care requires empathy, understanding and feeling another’s pain. Dictionary.com defines empathy as a noun:

  1. The intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another;

  2. The imaginative ascribing to an object, as a natural object or work of art, feelings or attitudes present in oneself: By means of empathy, a great painting becomes a mirror of the self.

To help cultivate empathy, begin with self-examination. Self-awareness includes knowing one's personal biases, values, desires and concerns which may affect our interactions with others. Nurses witness another’s pain and must do so without judging or blaming.

For instance, when a patient is suffering from alcohol or drug abuse, the nurse must identify and set aside any biases in order to deal with the patient and family effectively. You may not approve of everything patients or families do and may not even like them. You must, however, accept them as fellow struggling human beings. People sense such genuine acceptance and respond accordingly. In general, the public assumes nurses truly care and will accept such efforts.

Understanding Patients

Regardless of how rude or irritating the other person is, it is always worse to be the one experiencing the personal crises. They are likely doing the best they can, given the circumstances. Nurses must understand patients’ and families’ fears and coping skills. Nurses can seek to understand the intention of others and respond to challenging situations without losing our connection with others.

For example, as a young, engaged nurse returning from lunch with “my honey,” I struggled to satisfy a patient’s family member who seemed excessively needy. As I spoke with her, I suddenly realized she was worried about “her honey.” As I recognized a fellow woman in love, she did not seem so needy. 

A nurse must be sincere and really care about what happens to others. This is the root of our role as patient advocates. For example, while instructing a pediatric patient and mother regarding discharge medications for the upper respiratory infection, the mother informed me the child refused to take any liquid medications but easily tolerated pill form without difficulty. I approached the ER physician for a new prescription to ensure the child would comply with the treatment regimen.

Learning How to Listen

A person in crisis needs a helpful nurse who has learned to listen. A nurse can help the person identify and express their feelings and cope with the situation. When my mother was hospitalized to rule out cancer, I called to check on her. I was transferred from the ER to the floor to X-ray. No one knew where my mother was. My anxiety and frustration mounted as I was transferred from unit to unit.

Patients and families in crisis need to know what to expect and require extra attention. I routinely review admission orders with the patient and family so that they know what to expect. I offer hand sanitizer to patients after assisting with toileting. I inform my ICU patients when cardiac enzymes are normal.

Finally, nurses must express our own feelings and needs without sacrificing the integrity of our position and remaining honest. We are forbidden to give out the ICU number. When I see a loved one hesitating to leave without being able to call and check on my patient, I offer them my cell phone number. This small gesture allows the loved one to leave and get much needed rest and alleviate their fear.

Empathy plays an important role in nursing. Knowing how it works is helping the patient feel less alone and understood. With empathy comes equality for us nurses, who bond with our patients and help them to get better.

How can you display empathy in nursing?