Do we really need to teach health professionals to be empathetic?

Do we really need to teach health professionals to be empathetic?

Next month I am going to an Empathy conference in Oxford and needless to say I’m more than a little excited. For someone who is a self-confessed English history devotee the opportunity to meander around the 12th century university college buildings in the ‘City of Dreaming Spires’ will be wonderful. However, as an educator and researcher with a passion for exploring the concept of empathy, the conference promises to be thought provoking (even though we are forbidden from using either ppt or written notes in our presentations … eeek!).

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‘Healthcare is more than the sum of its parts. All healthcare professionals must be knowledgeable, clinically astute and able to provide empathetic care’1

I’ve become increasingly interested in empathy over the last decade. For a long time I thought that people were either born with an empathetic disposition (as I assumed most health professionals were), or they weren’t (these are the narcissistic people we’ve all met at some stage in our lives). I didn’t conceptualise empathy as a skill that should and could be taught.

Then along came Naleya Everson, an exceptionally gifted and insightful person who taught me so much about the empathy deficit. Naleya was one of my undergraduate students, she soon became an honours student and is about to commence her PhD. She set me on a path where I became determined to fully understand this elusive construct and to discover ways to teach and assess students’ empathy skills.

So often you find that the students you are trying to inspire are the ones that end up inspiring you ~ Sean Junkins

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What a good nurse! Reflections on stories that stereotype and those that don’t

What a good nurse! Reflections on stories that stereotype and those that don’t

This week I am delighted to introduce our guest blogger, Professor Margaret McAllister, a friend and warmly regarded colleague. Margaret is a gifted story teller and researcher whose written works and conference presentations are both engaging and provocative. In this post Margaret dispels some of the myths associated with ‘the good nurse’ and challenges educators to consider the use of negative stories in their teaching.

 

Tracy, a captivating storyteller herself, has previously written in her blog about the benefits to healthcare students and professionals when they contemplate powerful stories. Illness and resilience stories humanise the healthcare experience, and because they are often imbued with layers of meaning, can prompt critical reflection. This reflection can go several ways – we can be motivated to think back on the story and perhaps our own lives, and we can be urged to think ahead towards the future, perhaps changing the way we think or act. This is the transformative power of compelling stories. Another benefit of stories is that they come in multiple modes and so, when available, we can access them by reading, viewing, or listening.

Tracy and I have partnered up with colleagues on several occasions to share stories and teaching approaches designed to deepen learners’ engagement [1, 2]. Stories don’t have to be factual to have impact; well-drawn fictional tales can teach us important lessons on being human – think of To Kill a Mockingbird, and Good Will Hunting, for example.

I and several other scholars have argued elsewhere that the media don’t always get it right in conveying the complexity of nursing practice and mainstream films and tabloid newspapers can be criticised for perpetuating unhelpful stereotypes about nurses and doctors. In 2004 the Telegraph screamed, “Are young nurses too posh to wash?” which really didn’t do too much good for nursing’s long struggle to achieve university status equivalent to our colleagues in medicine, physio, occupational therapy, and the like. The hidden stereotype in such a claim is that to be a nurse you don’t need a university education and indeed it is something to be ashamed of.

Another ongoing stereotype about nursing, sometimes effectively achieving sympathy and gratitude in the public, is the idea that nurses are angelic – omnipotent and omniscient – knowing the answer to every query, and able to anticipate a patient’s every need. This is a fairly unreasonable stereotype and  a difficult one to live up to! It is also dehumanising as nurses aren’t angels, they are human beings, capable of doing good, but also capable of making mistakes.

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Crossing the threshold … a journey of transformation from lay person to professional nurse

Crossing the threshold … a journey of transformation from lay person to professional nurse

 

At the lower end of the ancient Canongate in Edinburgh there is a worn sandstone lintel over a small seventeenth-century doorway. Inscribed in Latin are the words: ‘Pax intrantibus, salus exeuntibus’ … Peace to those who are entering, and safety to those about to depart. This engraving serves as a reminder that there is a threshold which marks the demarcation between what lies within, that place of familiarity and relative security, and what lies beyond … a place that is unknown and sometimes frightening ~ Meyer, Land & Baillie (2010).

Threshold

 

I deliberately titled my ‘Blog Educating Nurses … Transforming Lives’ as I believe that one of the most rewarding aspects of being an educator is guiding nursing students as they step across the threshold and embark on the journey of transformation from layperson to qualified health professional. During this process of transformative learning, disorientating dilemmas become a catalyst for growth and change (Mezirow, 2000), and students learn to question taken-for-granted ideas, attitudes, beliefs, habits of mind and feelings, as they begin to experience fundamental shifts in perspective. This transformation requires learning activities that challenge students to think more deeply and broadly, to question their assumptions and prejudices, and to see their world and the world of healthcare through a new lens.

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