Empathy – Critical and Elusive

Helping others is dependent on your ability to be empathetic, not just your knowledge and skill. In the world of health this may seem obvious, however empathy often gets lost in the complexity of the health care system.

I began pondering the sometimes dire absence of empathy in health care after watching Peter Attia’s TED Talk “Is the obesity crisis hiding a bigger problem?.” In his talk Attia discusses the practice of blaming obese patients for their health and questions the current way we think about obesity. He starts the talk with a story about a patient whom he treated. He explains that he provided exemplary medical treatment but failed as a person. He says he failed as a person because rather than being empathic he subconsciously blamed the patient for her condition.

In today’s U.S. culture it’s easy to blame people for health conditions like their weight; it’s easy to blame them for all their unhealthy choices. But, what does blaming achieve?

A large portion of my current work is in substance abuse prevention. Empathy is sometimes so hard. When I read the latest horror story about drug use, it’s hard to stop thoughts like “How can ANYONE start meth? There’s just no upside.” But, thoughts like that don’t help prevent anyone from using drugs and they certainly don’t help people trying to recover from addiction. Again, it’s so easy to blame people for using drugs. But if we want to help we must get beyond the finger pointing. We must acknowledge that we are trying to help individual humans, and that those individuals are struggling. Their struggle is their own, but we do not have to be another barrier, we can be a positive force.

I was struck by the power of empathy after watching Eleanor Longden’s TED Talk, “The voices in my head.” She talks about her struggle with schizophrenia. When she was first diagnosed it seemed her world would end. However in her fight for peace she got help from someone who told her she could work with the voices in her head. He believed in her and her ability to lead a safe and happy life. He was right. She was able to master the voices in her head. By simply offering support and understanding he changed the course of her recovery.

Health is charged. Health is mysterious. Empathy is simple. But in its simplicity it is easy to overlook. Don’t.

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Empower People to Take Ownership of Their Health

Public Health

The heated debate about U.S. health care focuses largely on health insurance and health care access. Of course, these two aspects are appropriate for the policy debate—there are few who would say our current system is optimal with regard to either, and many who say it’s not acceptable. But from a public health prospective, I can’t help but think of a slightly more humble part of the future of health in the U.S. –mainly the everyday tools everyday people can use to take ownership of their health. Two tools are of particular interest to me: the Internet and health tracking.

It’s not to say that Internet information or personal health tracking can replace medical professionals and their care, but it is to say that the health of the individual goes beyond medical visits and consultations with health care professionals. Many of us who do visit the doctor and the dentist may already know this—the forceful suggestions to exercise at least 4 times a week and to floss everyday remind us that maintaining our health is not just the responsibility of medical professionals.

It’s true that individual people can take ownership of their health on a daily basis. There are tons of health education initiatives trying to help people do that by providing them with information and specific steps they can take. What makes these initiatives both strong and weak is that they focus on one specific aspect of life that can improve health, like quitting smoking or exercising.

But, what if health education in the U.S. taught people how to find out about health conditions and healthy actions instead of focusing on disseminating the facts about conditions and healthy actions?

The Internet: A First Source of Health Information

According to a 2013 Pew Internet report, 35% of U.S. adults reported going online to try to diagnose a medical condition they or someone else had. Of these, 46% said their findings made them think they needed help from a medical professional and 38% said the condition was something they could take care of at home. In addition, 41% of the adults who used the Internet to form a diagnosis said that a medical professional confirmed their diagnosis.

What I find fascinating is that of adults who looked for health information online, 77% started their search on a search engine and only 13% said they started on a site that specializes in health information.

This leads to several questions:

  • How can we make the Internet, as a whole, a better source of health information?
  • How can we help individuals develop good online searching skills that will lead them to accurate health information online?
  • How can we make online health information easier to weed through?
  • How can we ensure that the most helpful, accurate, and credible sources of online health information come up when people search for health information?

Many health organizations are already putting health information online—not just research organizations but also doctor’s offices that allow you to view your medical records online.  But, putting information online is not enough. Empowering individuals to find health information on their own is going to also require helping people learn how to navigate the sea of information and creating tools that organize and sort that information.

Tracking Health: Health Empowerment

According to a 2013 Pew Internet report, 69% of U.S. adults track one or more health indicators (e.g. weight, exercise, or diet). Adults are more likely to track health indicators if they have one or more chronic health conditions. People have different ways of tracking these conditions—49% of adults reported tracking their health mentally, 34% reported tracking their health on paper, and 21% reported using technology to track their health.

What’s more, 63% of those who reported tracking their health also agreed with at least one statement of impact including: their tracking changed their approach to maintaining their (or someone else’s) health, caused them to ask their doctor questions or get a second opinion, and impacted a decision about treatment for a illness or condition.

Much like with Internet health information, personal tracking can provide individuals with knowledge about their health before they visit a health professional. The prevalence and impact of health tracking indicated in this report lead to several questions:

  • How can we help people become better at tracking their own health?
  • How can we develop tools to help people keep better track of their health?
  • How can we develop tools that not only track health but also provide analysis of the tracking results?

Access to technology can help individuals track their health, according to the same Pew Internet report one in five smartphone owners has a health app, but it’s not the only important piece to effective health monitoring. Providing people with the knowledge of what aspects of their health are most important to track and the skills to track those aspects with consistency is another key piece to the puzzle.

Health Ownership

Tools like the Internet allow individuals to find health information on their own and tools like health trackers empower individuals to monitor their own health. While online information and health trackers abound, the challenge with these tools is their usability and accessibility. The usability of these tools not only depends on the tools themselves but on individual’s skills and confidence in using the tools. The accessibility of the tools is about how an individual is going to find the tools when there is so much information online and so many different ways of tracking health.

As we look forward to improving public health, it may be worth shifting our focus from pushing information about specific conditions and actions to teaching skills that help individuals effectively find health information on any condition and track their health on their own.  It’s not enough to just push the facts, we need to empower individuals with health knowledge and skills so they can take ownership of their health.