On Empathy

The concept of having to learn the importance of empathy is likely to be completely foreign to a lot of people.  For many empathy is so ingrained into their being that they've never had to think about it.  To these people, admitting that I had to actively learn about it probably makes me appear unfeeling and cold-hearted.  Let me clarify that I have always recognised the importance of compassion and empathy from a human perspective, it just took me a while to recognise that such characteristics were equally important in my work.

Indulge me in an analogy.

A couple of years ago we were doing a lot of painting around our house.  My role in painting is being relegated to the skirting boards and door frames and given we’ve got an old house there was plenty of woodwork to keep me occupied.  I started to think I had become pretty good at it, achieving clean lines and even application.  I got a bit cocky with my self-proclaimed technical expertise and found that on a few occasions in my hurry to get going with the painting and my intense focus on ensuring the paint applied to door frame was pristine meant I’d missed the fact that I’d dripped paint on the floor below.  As far as the outcome of painting the door frame was concerned I excelled, but in terms of the overall outcome of improving the aesthetic of our hallway I’d ended up creating a problem that didn’t exist before I got involved.  I’ve learned since then that however boring and against my nature it may be, preparation for painting is just as important to achieving the overall outcome and long lasting results as the application of the paint itself.

That’s pretty similar to the lessons I’ve learned along my career thus far as a pharmacist.  The very reason I went into pharmacy in the first place was that I liked the sciences; I thought healthcare would be a nice area to work in but didn’t want to touch people.  Developing technical expertise was by far my main objective in the first 5 or 6 years or so.  I always appreciated that having pharmacists who were really into patient care was very important, but I was quite happy to leave it to those who liked it and I’d stick to the thinking and decision making.  I was a bit cocky regarding my technical skills.  But as with my painting experience I soon learned that a reductionist approach which placed greater value on technical components only got me so far in achieving my overall objective. Whatever role I had, be it manufacturing, drug information, clinical trials, management and of course clinical work, dealing with people was consistently an integral component.  I soon learned that in order to really be successful in a meaningful way I had to value developing my humanistic skills as much as the technical ones. 

Since that learning, which I’m sure is innately obvious to those who were drawn to pharmacy to be a care provider rather than drug expert, I changed my approach to patient care and started to become what I would consider a more well-rounded healthcare professional.  I soon saw that I was adding a lot more value to the team than I did before.  As a result, I no longer view pharmacy practice as the fluff around the edges that keeps the touchy feely types happy.  I now understand it as the actual real meaning of a role as pharmacists and a path to opportunities to make a positive contribution to the health of our society.