Empathy in healthcare with Kelsey Crowe, PhD | Founder of Help Each Other Out

"Everything about a medical setting from it's unequal power relations, the racial makeup of who the doctors are, the gender makeup, everything about it suggests that there will be a lack of empathy for your very common patient" Kelsey Crowe, PhD.

Kelsey Crowe, PhD is the Founder of Help Each Other Out, Co-author of There Is No Good Card for This


Kelsey Crowe, PhD & Help Each Other Out

I'm Kelsey Crowe and I am the founder of the social venture, Help Each Other Out and I also teach social work. Help Each Other Out is about giving people tools for human connection when it's really difficult to do. Often it's really difficult to do when someone is going through something really difficult that you don't understand. So, if you know someone going through illness, loss, miscarriage, infertility or depression you may not feel that you can fully relate to that experience and back away. Help Each Other Out is about making it easier to lean into somebody's difficult experience and not be afraid to actually find how much joy it gives you to have connection on deeper levels. It actually gives you more energy rather than less. I started this work because I was somebody who shied away from people in a difficult time.

I was often afraid that I would say or do something to make the situation worse. I reached kind of a dead end with that behavior when my friend was diagnosed with breast cancer and I didn't reach out and I could no longer console myself, but that was because I was doing her a favor. I realized it was because I was simply afraid. I had experiences in my own life growing up that was very isolating and filled with a lot of pain and suffering and others didn't reach out to me. I recognized that I was inflicting the same pain of isolation that had been afflicted upon me, I don't think it's because people don't care. I think, in fact, many of us do care. I think we just often don't feel equipped to do something with that care that can support somebody else.

Connecting Empathy tools to the healthcare environment

It's funny, when I first did this work, I didn't expect it to infiltrate the medical community at all. I really was looking for your average person that's looking for a yoga class or an empathy class, and really wanting to take it out of the hands of professionals and put these kinds of skills into everyday skills like we have around how to eat at the dinner table. Just basic kind of regular etiquette practice. I started getting more calls from medical providers about doing my empathy bootcamps with them and I recognize that what is so valuable in that community are two things;

  1. The very simple practical tips I give around communication that doesn't dismiss somebody else's experience that honors somebody else's experience, makes them feel respected, but doesn't have to add a whole lot of time to your encounter that many, as you know, medical professionals do not have. So how can we help people feel seen in their condition? By just the way we have presence with them, and not necessarily give them one more hour of our usual to do's business that we do by the computer. I guess this kind of practical approaches has appealed to medical providers.

  2. Also, I talk a lot about how, what we can be, who we are and what we can do. How to help us see that as being so full and complete, and ultimately enough. I think it's in our striving to be perfect, that we wind up layering on a level of stress to connection that makes us resistant. So my goal in the medical community is that doctors feel empowered as human beings to be who they are and to offer their best self, but to not expect to be everybody to all things. Because, when we go that route of trying to please everybody all the time that's when we get to the burnout and fatigue, the resentment and the cynicism. So that is my goal, to help medical professionals really recognize who they are as natural empaths, identify ways to be that full self and to feel like it's a joyous thing.

Jeopardizing Empathy in the provider patient relationship

I think we jeopardize it when we blame patients for their situation, which on the one hand can easily happen because we all have our traits that make us blameworthy. That can bring us into the hospital. I think we also need to see our patients for who they are, which are people with families or people without family, people with failed dreams and with dreams. People who bring a whole host of fears, denial, worry, and to not wall ourselves off from those because they get in the way of doing the medical work and in fact somehow figure out how to work with these aspects of human beings. That is part of the work, I think we'll all be so much better at it.

Social Determinants of Health & Empathy

All Studies, on empathy have shown that people in power have less empathy for people not in power. That people who are more powerless tend to have more empathy for others because they've had to put themselves in the shoes of somebody else to sort of navigate and understand their treatment. Everything about a medical setting from it's unequal power relations, the racial makeup of who the doctors are, the gender makeup, everything about it suggests that there will be a lack of empathy for your very common patient. Even the research studies who's being studied are we studying different populations and genders for different impacts of drugs and on and on and treatment outcomes. So it's, it's inherently bias. And then also who comes into the system because of lack of access to preventive care.

Then the way that those patients are judged, "you've let this tooth decay this far. Why didn't you go for regular checkups? Do you not care about yourself ?". Lack of information that patients have about various medications and their side effects. Not everyone is easily going to turn to Google and look up web med, or have friends that they can talk to or to get referrals for the best practitioner. The networks that people move in and sort of the professionals within their social circle and family circle that they have access to. It's just so different. That really allows you to prepare for your calls and to field your providers. There's so much room for disparity, and it's a tremendous ask of doctors and nurses in there wanting counter to try to overcome that huge societal weight of disparities.

The Feel and look of empathy for the everyday patient

I think for a patient empathy feels like someone understanding your frustration form the minute you get into the door with how cold the reception area is. How uncomfortable the seats are, to how anxious you are about waiting and not understanding why you're there for two, three, or four hours. To getting into the doctor's office and not waiting in your gown for an hour, for shivering. To meeting your doctor and not have them immediately turned to their computer and start typing in notes. To having your doctor ask, how are you feeling about this today? And hearing your experience with what you're going through.

To then asking what do you already believe you know about this condition? And respecting the knowledge, what you believe to be knowledge that you bring to it, and to have open ended questions about any concerns that they have with coming home or with anyone in their community and genuinely wanting to know not just ticking it off of a form.And then the larger system in terms of its practice of sharing medical records and communication between medical providers that they try to facilitate a lot of communication around some basic data so that the patient doesn't have to keep repeating over and over again, some of their basic information, because it's really dehumanizing.

Deploying empathy towards vulnerable populations in the healthcare setting

So many vulnerable populations, let's say call them vulnerable at the same time, sometimes act the toughest and it's because they're afraid to be vulnerable. They don't want to be victimized, they don't want to be disrespected. So they may not share all of their stuff, all of their worries. They may not actually and often do not have a lot of trust in their medical team.

I think that doctors need to build rapport with their patient that's based on trust. And Trust always, always begins with an interest in who somebody else is. If you don't have that interest, then you're just another doctor who doesn't care about me. So you, you have your own stereotype as a medical professional to overcome. Even if it's, Oh, I noticed your hair is different today. Anything special going on? Any way to sort of acknowledge or shared humanity.

There's No Good Card For This

What inspired me to write the book; There Is No Good Card For This is getting the hands of as many people as possible, some basic tools and practices that help people connect to others. It was rooted in a firm belief that, we so much lack compassion as we lock confidence in how to be compassionate. So the book provides real guidelines for what empathy and compassion can look like and feel like. And also illustrate ways in which what we see as benign comments can actually seem very hurtful to somebody else. So it kind of illuminates what caring connection looks like. It doesn't try to tell somebody to be somebody who they aren't by any means. It just helps round off the rough edges a little and I'm really pleased that It's gotten into a few people's hands for sure and may it get into more.

Impacting Societal change through empathy

What I do is teach and help others teach each other some basic tips for having more effective communication and connection. My hope would be that people have the conversations that they want to have because they've learned these things. They don't want to have dead end conversations, where you don't get all the health data that you need to make your medical decisions. And you don't get all the feelings updates from your spouse or your family member that you need to be a good spouse, good parent, or good sibling. There are ways that we can practice talking to each other that bring out more and make our relationships really worth while. My hope would be that people learn these simple tools, and they have access to them, however is best for them whether it's in a book ,workshop or online. 

Empathy Legacy

I would like to see empathy education  in every classroom, the way that you see sex education. I'd like to see it in every wellness studio in the way you would see yoga. I'd like to see it as just part of adulting, that we take relational health based classes. That would be my legacy that, that happened. That somebody would just join that course as freely as they would join any other course. 

Danya Glabau, PhD "The Moral Life of Epinephrine in the United States”.

"Modern medicine has made great strides by trying to standardize diagnosis and treatments but because of the way we manage physician-patient encounters, there's often not a chance to step back and say could I be asking other questions, might there be some other family, social and cultural factors that is potentially affecting how these roles can be applied in these individual cases" Danya Glabau, PhD.

Dr. Danya Glabau is a Medical Anthropologist, Founder of Implosion Labs, LLC, an ethnographic research and consulting group working with clients in health care and technology, and Adjunct Instructor in the Technology, Culture, and Society department at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. She is the Co-Chair of the Science, Technology, and Medicine special interest group of the Society for Medical Anthropology and Co-Organizer of the New York-based QX MeetUp Group

“The Moral Life of Epinephrine in the United States"

This was an article that initiated some other work around patient advocacy, and healthcare for food allergies patients. This piece was looking at epinephrine auto-injectors, specifically which are these devices, a drug device combination that administers a dose of epinephrine for a person who is experiencing an allergic reaction. You might have one of these prescribed if you have a food allergies and potentially if you have an allergy to certain drugs. The way it works is it’s kind of a spring loaded mechanism about the size of a sharpie marker and if are experiencing an allergic reaction you can surge a bit into your leg, it will release medication epinephrine which we also known as adrenaline that very rapidly reduces the symptoms of the allergic reaction.

What I found when I set out to do my research was that I would sit down to talk to people who had food allergies or parents of food allergen children and just ask them to tell me about their experiences with the condition. Very often the conversation would end up being about these epinephrine auto-injectors. People felt very attached to them because they relied on them in such cases to save their lives, so they were really a central part of the patient experience with food allergies. That caught my attention and I wanted to spend a little bit more time thinking about all the different ways that they impact food allergies.

The article follows the device itself, through the different ways that patients use it, encounter it and learn about it. We kind of start off in the clinical encounter; how the physician introduce this device, how do they educate them (patients) on it, what the patients take away from that interaction which isn't always what they physician intends. Then from there how does this device affects their relationships in their communities, relationships with schools if they have allergic children and how it affects family relationships.

I end the piece by looking at how talking about epinephrine auto injectors is actually a key aspect of how the food allergy community builds a community. People with allergies and parents of food allergic children spend a lot of time talking about these devices and how they save their lives, exchanging news, exchanging updates about food research or new devices on the market. So it's really a way for people to connect by talking about their shared experience around this technology, and build a community which then has other effects as well.

As an anthropologist I’m using what are called ethnographic methods. It's a very open ended research method in some ways, where you kind of go in and talk to people, some people call it deep hanging out. You follow people through their daily lives and really understand what they think about their lives and you observe what they do, and sometimes there's a mismatch. This is a method that I use for researching food allergy and for my more recent research as well. A Lot of my research was interviews with people, attending food events, allergy advocacy events and things like that.

I think that it reveals a side of medicine that we often overlook. We talk a lot about the economics of health care, investments, cutting edge technologies, but we don't spend as much time I think as a society really sitting down and listening in detailed ways to how people experience them and patients experiences. I think these kind of ethnographic deep hanging out methods, lets you really get inside of people's lives and understand what it looks like from an everyday perspective, to be dealing with medical industry to be learning about medical treatments, to be a patient.

Theres a lot of ethical and moral questions, you know the title of the article the moral life of epinephrine, in the United States kind of gives that away. I think one of the places where there's maybe more of a dilemma is when patients are faced with emergency situations when they are starting to experience an allergic reactions and making the decision of whether or not to use their auto-injectors.

One of the big dilemmas that people face is cost, so these devices have become more costly over the past ten years or so and using one might eventually cost a person several hundred dollars out of pocket to replace it. There's often a calculation nowadays for people who are deciding, is this a serious enough to actually need the injection, serious enough situation that I can afford to pull out and replace this device for the next time.

Another dilemma and one that us faced by adults with food allergies, is that of trying to decide whether to use the auto-injector and to get the appropriate follow-up treatment which means they are not going be able to follow up on responsibilities for the rest of the day, probably will have to go to the ER, they might have a follow-up doctor’s visit, they might feel very tired after using the medications etc. There's always this decision making process about “can I let down all of those people in my life, can I sort of skip all those other issues to take care of myself”. From the outside it's easy to say yes, of course you should, you should always put your health first but when you are a person balancing a lot of responsibilities it can be very difficult decision.

Part of the reason why I draw on Sharyl Mattingly’s work is that she does a really good job thinking about the clinical encounters between patients or parents of patients and physicians. One of the things that are at stake are socioeconomic factors. It might be in obvious ways in that a doctors is recommending that a patient get a treatment that the patient sure know that they can't afford or their not sure that they can afford. That might make them a little bit suspicious, a little bit hesitant in the interaction and the doctor is not necessarily going to know why, so there's that level that I think it's really important for physicians to keep in mind.

There’s this other layer of different understandings of what is right and good. This kind of moral question, for a patient theres a lot of things that they might be thinking about, what is a good treatment. It might be a treatment that doesn't have too many side effects so that they can keep living their lives, it might be a treatment that does treat long term potential outcomes of a condition, a treatment that is accessible to them financially, or is offered in a location that convenient where they can take a reasonable time off from work where they wont lose their job to access the treatment. There are all of these factors some of them are tied to society, economics or community expectations about involvement in community or family events. I think these often get lost in the patient-physician encounter, especially nowadays when we’re really crunched for time, as physicians might be trying to fit in six or eight patients in an hour.

The hospital or clinical facility is a context for a lot of these interactions and it structures what can happen in a doctor-patient interaction. That means that it also structures how a patient encounters information about their condition, treatment, and therefore can really shape how they feel about it and what they feel is accessible to them. In a way we might think of the doctor patient interaction not as starting when the doctor-patient sit down together, but its starting as soon as a patient walks into a facility. There's the question of how do we structure healthcare delivery in terms of diagnosis, treatments and prescriptions, but also do we structure the entire experience of being in a healthcare setting for a patient.

One way that people are starting to think about this especially in Europe, is to the lens of something called services-time. Therefore thinking about what does a service look like from the person using it, so in this case from the patient perspective and how do we drill down into all of the different steps, all of the different encounters that the individual has from their encounter with the space, their experience in the parking lot, their experience with the receptionist, biller, as well their experience in the clinic room and with their physician. How do you kind of drill down and make all these areas work in the best way possible?

Some of these solutions might be technological, technological infrastructure, it might mean having the right digital or EMR tools to make interactions seeming-less. Some of those might be on the side of personnel and training and making sure people are really knowledgeable about their particular role but also a little bit knowledgeable about the other roles of the people in the office so that they can facilitate the person getting what they need within the context .

Some of that depends on the medical knowledge of the providers; the physicians, nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, laboratory technicians and so on. Ensuring that you have the right cast of characters and the right kind of expertise to provide the service that someone needs when they walk in. I think that's a really important way to be thinking about healthcare delivery, we should be thinking about health care facilities right now.

The other piece is, what is the patient prepared for, what are they educated about? In the case of epinephrine auto-injectors, there's a lot of support for patient education and patient preparedness from the pharmaceutical companies that produce these devices, as well as from a host of patient advocacy organizations. On the pharmaceutical side there's educational videos demonstrating how to use the device. On the patient advocacy side there are some advocacy groups that directly provide educational materials like Forbes For Schools or colleagues to learn how to use the device, videos demonstrating the device, webinar series talking about updates and developments and new improvements as well as support for local support groups. There are a couple of organizations like Kids with Food Allergies or the Food Allergies Research and Education Organization Fair that both support local support groups where individuals who are facing a new diagnoses themselves or in the family can go find local experts, learn about these techniques etc.

One of the things about food allergies is patients being prepared with an epinephrine auto-injectors, being ready to use it is one piece of a much larger puzzle. There's a lot of steps that come before that where you could be preventing an allergic reaction in the first place. Things like;

  1. Asking the right questions of your waiter when you eat out.

  2. Learning how to read a food label to know all the different names that your allergy might go by to avoid it.

  3. Knowing which brands might be manufactured in a facility that might be safe for you, which brands might not be.

  4. Changing your cooking techniques, kitchen organization techniques to make sure that foods that are safe for you are isolated from materials that might not be.

Medicine isn't just about treating our bodies, by treating our bodies it actually lets us be full social, moral actors. Appreciating how complex and difficult that is I think could really heighten the respective importance of medicine and medical care in some ways. In the case of food allergies a really big part of treatment or prevention strategies is actually community based. Its making sure that chefs and cooks in your community know enough about food allergies to respond when someone in a restaurant says they have a food allergy.

It's about teachers and schools employees knowing enough about food allergies to know how to adequately clean tables or desks and classrooms to make sure that there’s no peanut butter smeared on a desk or something like that. There are a lot of community steps that can be taken around food allergies in particular but again I think that that's not how we typically think of medicine and illness in the United States.

We typically think of it as an individual problem that is in an individual's body but there's all of these social and community issues not only about how we get treatment but also about how to prevent illness. Each of us can be more appreciative of that and more interested in saying, “okay is there one or two small things that I can do in my behavior that will make it safe for someone else” that will make someone else live a more healthful productive life.

I think patient advocacy is becoming a bigger and bigger part of healthcare environment especially in the United States. It’s also becoming more increasingly consolidated and more professionalize so theres a lot of back and forth between patient advocacy groups and healthcare groups like insurers and pharmaceutical companies. In some cases becoming more closely aligned with pharmaceutical companies.

I think that's good because it gives some of these groups a larger reach and a voice in healthcare. However, I also think it's very important to consider how can we maintain the independence of patient advocacy and how can we make sure that it's really representing interest and needs of patients. Rather than interests and needs of these actors who are well represented in the healthcare system. I think that's a challenge for patients activists, how to grow but maintain that fidelity to the needs of people who don't necessarily have a voice.

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