Recently I had a wonderful conversation with a colleague on social media, Erin Gilmer (@GilmerHealthLaw).
Erin ( GilmerHealthLaw) pointed out to me the difference between the use of the word compassion versus empathy.
Erin noticed many times when she hears leaders and other executives inside of healthcare talk that they speak about empathy, but from her perspective, what she really thinks that they mean is compassion.
Erin specifically asked me what my thoughts and observations were on the use and difference between compassion and empathy?
I think it makes sense to take a step back and actually define what both of those words mean.
Compassion means sympathy or the concern for the suffering or misfortune of another person accompanied by a strong desire to want to alleviate that suffering.
Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another individual’s experience and emotions.
Erin shared with me that she believes it’s difficult for most people to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and understand their experience.
I think this is an amazing question!!
I think it depends on the situation.
I believe this because for me personally, I’ve always had one foot in and one foot out.
I’ve been caught in between two different worlds.
I’m a minority.
My mother is Caucasian. She grew up in Michigan.
My father is Hispanic and his first language was Spanish until he entered grade school.
My father’s mother and sister, my grandmother and aunt, were illiterate. They could not understand or speak English. They both also died of cancer.
My father lost his father, my grandfather, by the age of 10 and his mother by the age of 14.
He grew up in a single room home, built in the middle of a field with a dirt floor and a tin roof.
My mother on the other hand grew up in Michigan. She graduated high school, she attended a private nursing school, she graduated and was a staff nurse and then moved on to become an administrator. For the majority of my life all I can remember was my mother being an administrator or an executive director inside of hospitals and then nursing homes.
I have always been caught between two worlds.
I understand what it’s like to be a minority. I understand what it is like to be discriminated against in school, at work, in social circles because the shade of my skin, the spelling of my name, or how I pronounce words is different than those around me.
I understand issues to accessing health/care.
The cost barriers, the language barriers. I understand that some words don’t translate from medical terminology and jargon to everyday words, let alone from English to Spanish.
Shortly after graduating college I was charged in helping to navigate the waters of breast cancer care for my own aunt. To help translate the big scary terms of chemotherapy, radiation therapy, adjuvant therapy, HER2Nu, BRCA1 and BRCA2 and lumpectomy to a family that doesn’t trust the world of medicine, let alone know what all of these words mean to the life expectancy of their mother.
I was asked to translate her expectations for care and what the family would prefer her experience to be during her breast cancer journey.
In many instances, because I’ve been a patient or I’ve helped navigate the waters of being a patient, I’ve understood the barriers and challenges to accessing health/care.
At the same time I am also an insider.
I have formal training inside of health care. I have built cancer centers. I have built hospitals. I have ran, managed, directed and been responsible for cancer centers, service lines, growing the top line and balancing the bottom line. I have a clinical background in oncology. I have worked with payers and insurance companies to build new models of coverage, payment, reimbursement, and access.
I have built new models to expedite the time from thinking one has cancer to knowing your treatment options in 3 days or less.
I have worked as a researcher. I have worked for the large medical technology companies to develop and introduce the next generation of medical tools.
Again, I have one foot in and one foot out.
Two feet. Each standing in different worlds.
My experience has led me to have a deeper and more intimate understanding of people. Of all of those people seated, and unseated, around the table we call health/care.
Maybe this has allowed me to have greater empathy for many of the stakeholder that are inside and outside of health/care?
Yet the reality is that I can’t have empathy for everyone.
And in those scenarios I have to resolve in having compassion.
This was a beautiful observation that began with Erin.
It led to a wonderful conversation of between the two of us.
It ultimately led me to want to highlight and share that there is a difference between leading with compassion and leading with empathy.
I believe that as much as any of us are able to, that we always want to be empathetic.
We always need to try and put ourselves in the shoes and in to the experience of others.
But for those instances and situations in which we can’t, we need to lead with compassion.
At the end of the day, what we need to understand, what is the most important thing inside of health/care is that we want to be seen as individuals.
We want care to be delivered based on our expectations. We want to trust those that care for us, and we want them to trust our voice.
The ideal way to build trust is the same way the best medicine is delivered, one on one.
At the N of 1.
As always feel free to email me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter and Instagram as CancerGeek