The importance of Empathy in Healthcare

 Over the past 3 decades I have had the pleasure and privilege of visiting Ireland many times. where my wife and I developed and implemented a 15 year archaeological project in Waterford County. 

What soon became clear to us was how much we liked being Ireland; how much we liked the Irish people.  It is true that there are special connections between the Irish and Americans founded in the immigration of many Irish to Chicago, New York and Boston beginning the middle of the 19th century. And or course many the Irish citizen's revere John Fitzgerald Kennedy. But there was something deeper that was reaching us and making us feel at home; making us feel that people cared about us even though we were just visiting their communities.  As anthropological observers we began to see the roots of this empathic basis of Irish culture in the simple fact that Irish people often talked with each other and in so doing maintained an oral culture. In addition to this, they continue to proactively tie modern day culture with its historical precedents and very importantly tie history strongly to the literary traditions of the of Irish society. 

My wife and I just felt more relaxed and more at home when we touched Irish soil.  And this is despite the fact that neither of us has any historic Irish ancestry. (When asked if I have Irish ancestry, I often note that may grandparents came from central Europe and in so doing I might have Celtic bronze age links that date a few thousand years ago).

But all kidding aside, the oral culture, historical awareness and literacy of the people we met every year convinced us that Ireland is a special place.

And this past summer 2016 made this clear under some pretty terrible circumstances when I had a major spinal disc herniation and ended spending almost 2 weeks in two Irish hospitals.  The stress of this time played out quite differently for Claudia and me, but the empathy of the Irish caretakers and others who helped us showed us again a special cultural attitude that got us through this situation.

The Irish approach to our continuous emergency was simple, yet profound. At all levels of medical care, each sequential problem by focused on us as people first.  They were not focused on the situation, but rather on what would help us most.  Irish empathy and their reliance on face to face culture was the basis of prioritizing our comfort as the key to solving the situational problem.

There are many examples.  At one point, Claudia drove me across country to the Shannon Airport Hotel to see if we could work out getting me on a flight home.  When we arrived at the hotel, she spoke to hotel manager to describe the situation.  "I can't move my husband out of the car,' she explained. Can you help me?"  "Of course," responded the hotelier, but before we move to that, I want you to sit at that table, and I will bring you a cup of tea."  She then came to see me, and called the EMT, who again had a humane response to my predicament.  "Not to worry, Mr. Green" we will get you out of the car."  To do this they offered me an inhaler of nitrous dioxide to relax me and then moved onto the logistics of moving me.

When I was subsequently moved to the University of Limerick Hospital, I noted the communal nature of the wards.  I was among about 8 people within a large room, that was attended to by nurses and other caregivers, who regularly walked through asking if anyone needed anything.  The caregivers worked together, sharing duties.  There was not much need for the emergency nurse call button (although there was one), because the nurses and their assistants were generally among us.  The nurses station was at the far end of the ward.

Meals were served communally as well.  Every meal was prefaced by the delivery of tea with biscuits. The tea cups were ceramic and the silverware metal.  The main course came in a steam table rolled into the center of the ward.  We were asked our entree preferences, but most meals came with the required 3 scoops of mashed potatoes and root vegetables.  Dessert was served in the same manner, and again with tea.

In all of these interactions, nurses cared for the person as the key to solving a problem.  I have always felt that nurses and other caregivers that serve doctors, are the key to healthcare. But there is something different in the Irish way of doing things and again this stems from a continued oral, face to face culture and the empathy that rides along with this cultural proclivity. 

So this was my hypothesis when I arrived in NYC for back surgery straight from my flight home:  The empathy built into the Irish culture results in improved healthcare.  And I had the immediate test situation when I was ambulanced from JFK airport to an NYC Hospital for spinal surgery.  

Everything went well in the hospital and the surgery was successful.  But the difference in the way I was spoken to, responded to, and in general cared for was based on solving particular situations rather than caring for me.  Where I never had to use the nurses call bell in Limerick, this was the only way I was able to get someone to help me.  People were in general polite, but their connection to me was cursory. 

The point I want to make, is not that Irish health care in better than the US (or vice versa); but rather Irish Culture is special because it is built upon people interacting with each other.  This interactive empathy is indeed what many people are now calling for in such books as Putnam's "Bowling Alone." where he points out the human cost of social fragmentation.  DharmaPunx (Josh Korda) recent podcast (DharmaPunx, Brooklyn) describes the biological need for social connections to fulfil the right side of the brain's need for mammalian gregariousness.  The need for people to connect, indeed, appears to be brain science.