Earlier this year, I had introduced you to “lifestyle philosopher” and Oxford University Professor, Roman Krznaric and his work on empathy’s role in our world today. He has released a new animation which is an amazing video that is part of this post. Hopefully, it is as insightful for you as it was for me. I interviewed Roman on some of his thoughts about empathy and it’s role in healthcare as well as other areas that were relevant to our world today. Here, below is that interview.
I used to be an academic teaching and researching political science. But about a dozen years ago I had an intellectual awakening when I came to realize that societies and politics didn’t simply change through new laws, institutions and policies but through changes in the way people treated each other at the individual level, especially through empathy. I define empathy as the art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding the feelings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide your actions. It’s a fundamental skill that almost all of us have, but we rarely fulfill our empathic potential, or work hard enough to harness the power of empathy to create social transformation.
How do you think that empathy can help healthcare, both there in Britain and here in the US, where healthcare is a very politically charged topic?
It’s interesting to me that the origins of public healthcare in Britain can be traced back to an important empathic shift during the Second World War. Over a million children were evacuated from big cities to rural foster homes to escape the German bombs. And one of the unintended results was that relatively well-off rural folk suddenly had relatively poor city children thrust into their homes, and they could see the extremes of urban poverty with their own eyes: it was a moment of empathic understanding and awakening. There was huge public outcry and the government took immediate action, improving public health care for children, giving free meals in schools, vitamin supplements and other health care. This mass meeting of strangers was, in effect, the beginnings of the British welfare state – and it happened right in the middle of the war when resources were extremely scarce. There is a lesson here: that empathy sensitizes us to health care inequalities, and can spur social and political action to alleviate it.
Of course, healthcare reform is a very politically charged topic in the US, since it is so closely associated with the Obama administration. It was also Obama who started talking about America’s ’empathy deficit’ in the lead up to the 2008 Presidential Election. The American right then started critiquing the concept of empathy because of its links to Obama. Despite all this political complexity, I think empathy remains essential to the issue of healthcare. Why? The historical evidence points to the fact that empathy opens the door of our moral concern for neglected or marginalized social groups, and laws, rights and public policy wedge that door open, helping to universalize that moral concern. Healthcare, like other key areas of public policy, is one where we should be shining the light of empathy, trying to understand how different parts of society experience the public health system (or lack of it), and equally how they are impacted by the structure of private health care. It is only through empathising that we gather enough evidence, from enough points of views of different citizens, to design truly effective and socially just health care systems. Otherwise good healthcare becomes the privilege of a few, rather than the right of the many.
The US is undergoing a sort of renaissance in healthcare information and technology. What do you see as the role of empathy in this area (more usage of smartphones, tablets and laptops vs. human interaction)?
One way to think about this issue is to look at the new wave of ’empathy skills training’ for doctors that has become popular in the last few years. Doctors are often criticized for being too clinical and emotionally detached from their patients. In 2010, doctors at a Boston hospital took part in an empathy skills program in which they were advised to pay greater attention to the changing expressions on their patients’ faces (for instance whether they showed anger, contempt, fear or sadness), to take note of voice modulations, and to make simple changes such as facing the patient rather than their computer screens during a consultation. After just three one-hour training sessions, doctors who went through the program showed vastly improved empathy levels. Their patients said these doctors made them feel more at ease, showed greater care and compassion towards them, and had a better understanding of their concerns. The doctors too could see the benefits. After spending a day putting the program’s methods into practice, one hospital doctor reported that while it was initially difficult to empathize with the patient while simultaneously making her diagnosis, eventually it ‘became fun’ and embodied the kind of personal interaction that had initially drawn her into medicine.
Now, what does this tell us? It would seem to suggest that it is person-to-person interaction that patients are after more than anything, and that this is the key to bringing more empathy into the sphere of healthcare. All the technology in the world doesn’t substitute for having a real human being treat you, look you in the eye, and hear your personal story.
That might make me sound pessimistic about the possible role that technology might play in empathic healthcare. Yet I also believe that if we get smart about using technology, it can help bring about an empathy revolution in healthcare. OK, almost everyone would rather have the doctor look at them rather than at their computer screen during a consultation. Yet just imagine if basic video technologies like Skype became a standard way for your doctor to visit you in your home to give post-treatment or post-operation check ups and advice. We need to learn to bring a little more intimacy into the way we use technology, especially social networks.
Do you foresee any upcoming empathy deficits?
The evidence is pretty clear that the US in a period of long-term empathy decline. A well-known study (Scientific American, December 23rd, 2010) revealed that US empathy levels are down nearly 50% in the last 40 years, with the steepest decline occurring in the past decade. So the empathy deficit is growing. At the same time we see rising levels of narcissism – around 1 in 10 Americans now exhibit narcissistic personality traits. There is also growing evidence that social networking technologies are exacerbating narcissism and contributing to empathy decline. There is a question about whether these trends are going to continue. I’m glad to say that there is a growing movement trying to address these problems by teaching empathy in schools. The most effective program, called Roots of Empathy, began in Canada and has now reached over half a million children worldwide.
Will we see more of these animations in the future? I think it is a great tool to get your message across in a simple, entertaining and informative way.