Data can be compelling, but nothing trumps personal experience when it comes to providing clarity on an abstract topic like empathy.
It was the fifth grade, and I played clarinet in the school band and was focused on maintaining my straight ‘A’ academic record. We had a big assignment: create a new product, write a one-minute commercial, and then sell the product in front of the class. That morning, as we all filed in abuzz about the presentations we’d been preparing for, our resident class clown was panicking. Anthony was very overweight, a ‘D’ student, and he had forgotten about the assignment entirely. He quickly wadded up some notebook paper and wrapped it with tape, labeled it the “Never Miss Basketball” and then proceeded to miss shot after shot during his commercial presentation. It was comical, and we all enjoyed it, but we also all knew it was one more poor grade he’d be receiving.
The holidays were approaching, and I had been volunteered by my parents to help at the Operation Santa workshop. Each slip of paper had the name of a child whose family could not afford a gift and some basic information about them. Volunteers would “shop” among the donated items for that child, then wrap and label the gift. I knew the instant I picked up that slip with “Anthony” written at the top that this was the same Anthony from my class. I stood staring at that piece of paper for several minutes as my ten-year-old brain tried desperately to process the very adult concepts of poverty and inequality, and how these might somehow be connected to one of my own classmate’s ability to do well in school, be healthy, and succeed. I chose a basketball for Anthony’s Christmas gift. I never told him or any of my classmates what I knew, but it did change my perception and understanding—not just of Anthony, but of all my classmates—and the very different lives we all lived.
At CCMU we are often asked, “Who are the medically underserved?” Armed with great data and compelling graphics, we describe the barriers that some Coloradans face accessing health care services and the social factors like our income, education, race and ethnicity, access to food and transportation, and more, that have a powerful influence on our health. Understanding the interdependence of these issues can be challenging though, even when the data is clear. Even health care providers, whose lives are dedicated to improving the health of their patients, are not always able to understand the impact of a patient’s life circumstances on their ability to get an appointment or follow a treatment plan. This is especially concerning, since studies have shown that empathy improves patient outcomes.
So, with the help of a medical student who interned with us this summer, we created a video that shows how the social determinants of health can impact a patient’s ability to access even the most basic health care services. We used a common office visit as the framework, hoping to increase people’s ability to understand and empathize with the patient’s experiences.
In the video, local providers share their perspective on the issue, as well as great advice on how to talk to patients about their life circumstances, and work with them to develop manageable treatment plans. The biggest lesson though, is the same one that made an impact on me as a volunteer: the first step to overcoming these intractable, impossible issues is being able to genuinely empathize with the lived experiences of others.