As we continue to navigate life during the COVID-19 pandemic, I am constantly reminded of the importance of clear, compassionate, and empathetic communication. Communication in healthcare is multifaceted. It involves talking and listening. Sometimes, listening with empathy to elicit understanding and challenge our own assumptions is underappreciated. As a physician-scientist, I study the factors that contribute to differences in health and wellbeing among various segments of the U.S. population. I have worked to understand the role of medical care in addressing social conditions that produce or exacerbate disease. I remind the medical students and residents I teach that a patient’s social circumstances do not absolve physicians from our personal responsibility to listen to each patient we are privileged to care for, seek to understand their experiences and perspectives, and hold ourselves accountable to reject assumptions or stereotypes in pursuit of understanding, empathy, and compassion.
Yet, the health and economic consequences of COVID-19 divide us while also revealing that the vulnerability and suffering resulting from this pandemic means that some will suffer disproportionately. It is important to give voice to this suffering, to embrace our shared humanity, to find empathy for the plight of others. Through compassionate and empathetic discourse, perhaps we can make progress in ensuring that out of this time of stress, hardship, fear, and suffering comes compassion, connection, empathy, and transformation. Showing appreciation for the personal sacrifice, bravery, and commitment that essential workers embody when they go to work uncertain of the risks they will face of exposure to COVID-19 is intuitive and critically important.
We also have to hold in our hearts the reality that people are both courageous and flawed at the same time. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought some truths into bold relief. These are not new insights. They have been visible all along. But we see them with fresh eyes in these times of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of giving in to prejudices or moving back into our “corners”, my greatest hope is that this crisis requires us to see and value people who too often go unseen, overlooked, or unheard. It would be a gift to all of us if the time at home and quiet moments in our lives that come with “staying at home” allow us to listen and reflect, if even for a moment, on the experience of someone we have not seen or thought about before.
As a physician, I have a moral and professional obligation to first do no harm. But all of us have the power to seek to understand the people we encounter for who they are, for their nobility and fragility and imperfections, for what they know about their experiences and their bodies…lest we overlook their suffering.
Rachel J. Thornton, MD, PhD