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A Condolence a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

Did you know that helpful condolences can improve healing in wounds and illnesses? Turns out that the empathy in consolation can even help prevent accidents. Here’s how.

I’ll use the experiences of two friends of mine who were in different hospitals at the same time, both with positive surgical outcomes, but both with radically different hospital experiences that affected their healing outcomes.

One friend, Darlene, I’d offered to help during her recovery from major bowel surgery. I was thinking, once she’s out of the hospital I’ll be cooking, making sure she takes her meds on time and running basic errands.

What I wasn’t prepared for were the nature of Darlene’s calls while still in the hospital.

“I asked for my pain meds right after my surgery yesterday, but I had to wait five hours before they brought them to me,” she said. “By then I was crying the pain was so bad. And the nurse gave me the excuse that he was too busy inputting new patients into the system.

“They keep asking me if I want coffee, but they never remember to bring it. Not once. They’re burned out from COVID. At least they’re nice about this, though.”

Until they weren’t—again.

“They want to send me home in a cab right now because I told them my ride can’t get here in the half hour window they say I have to leave or they’ll charge me for another day! How will I get up my front stairs alone when I can barely walk yet? They only care about getting me out of here.”

I dropped everything and jumped in the car to fetch her.

Even though Darlene’s actual surgery went way better than expected, over the course of the next two months she told anyone who would listen to her about the poor treatment at the hospital, and was despondent and in pain for months.

Contrast that with my friend Sharon, whose physical outcomes weren’t nearly as positive as Darlene’s. During Sharon’s emergency appendectomy it was discovered that it had ruptured, requiring a second course of powerful antibiotics that gave her digestive distress for months. But on top of that, while still in the hospital, they discovered Darlene has a heart problem, which took three days of titrating medications to stabilize. But even with all these physical setbacks, Sharon had only glowing words to say about her hospital experience.

“You can’t believe how nice everyone was, from doctors to custodial staff,” she said. “They were so caring in every detail. Even the last hospital employee who wheeled me out to the exit was considerate enough to squat down in front of my wheelchair so we’d be face to face when she asked me how I was doing.”

The power of empathy. The factor that determined my friends' emotional well-being or lack thereof was the level of empathy they were shown.

Illness as loss. Most people don't consider illness a something we grieve over. Every time our bodies break down, we face our mortality—and that’s the grandmother of all losses we face as humans.

Heartly healing. Listening deeply, and responding with empathy to someone who’s expressing sorrow, fear or pain over most anything, is, in effect, offering them meaningful consolation. And this helps them heal. Studies show that even physical wounds heal faster in patients who feel understood and supported.

Happy doctor, happy patient. But patients are not the only people who fare better with empathy in health situations.

Research shows that empathy training for medical staff affects the actual quality of medical care they offer.[1] Turns out that physicians who learn how to offer empathy to their patients report higher job satisfaction and lower burn-out levels, while also showing lower rates of physician error.

Condolence training in medicine. And this is exactly the role that helpful consolation can play in medicine—and in any business actually—it can improve the patient (or employee) experience, while also retaining productive, satisfied staff. [2]

Think of how different Darlene’s experience could have been had her nurse been able to offer condolences like the following:

  • Oh this never should have happened to you. I’m so sorry you’re in pain.

  • I’m so sorry for the suffering this has caused you.

On the other hand, the compassion and understanding Sharon received from all staff throughout her extended stay, helped her heal swiftly from the two extra complications she had. I heard her repeat the story many times to friends and family, saying she was going to write thank you notes to the hospital staff.

Darlene's hospital is also reaping the results of no empathy training. They will be saddled with the extra work of patient intervention once Darlene takes the full force of her two PhD’s to bear on the hospital’s patient care department.

Caring is crucial. The reputation within the community of each hospital is impacted by the way their patients feel about their care.

But it doesn’t stop there. Consider Darlene’s excellent surgeon whose skills managed to save her colon, but who won’t be receiving the kudos he might if his hospital had a culture of compassion.

As important as improved patient healing is, the impact of empathy training has even greater reach. By reducing the costly and time-consuming effects of medical staff burn-out and errors, meaningful consolation makes a positive impact on a hospital’s bottom line.

Medical personnel and hospital staff are still reeling from the extreme demands of the pandemic, so who has time for empathy training? It doesn’t need to be a gargantuan top-down overarching production. With a few simple steps (see my book, Condolences Pocket Guide), all hospital personnel can be part of a groundswell of tiny acts of empathy, to help patient outcomes, and improve their own culture of happiness.

[1] Davies J. Grieving after a sudden death: the impact of the initial intervention. Accid Emerg Nurs. 1997 Oct. 5(4):181-4. [Medline].


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Did I mention I have a book?

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