On a personal level I was struck by the converse idea, too. At times I have a positive bias with people who “look” like me. In this case it may not be because they actually look like me, that they are racially similar to me, but because there is something in their personality I relate to. A young mom with breast cancer is not who I am, but as she talks about her children and taking them to games and parties, I am reminded of my own young motherhood and suddenly I relate to that patient more completely. Does that translate to preferential treatment?
There is a link between mirroring and the empathy gap. How do we traverse it? By changing our mirror? By seeing the reflection the person has of themselves rather than the one we have. Then the homeless patient becomes relatable, the curmudgeon is accepted for who he is, the whining patient is appreciated for her limited coping skills, the patient who is of a different race or ethnicity is seen as a person not a description or definition.
Can you see the empathy gap in your practice?
I try to remember to pause before I meet a new patient. I don’t know who is on the other side of the door: it could be an important politician, a glamorous movie star, a frail and frightened elderly grandma, or a gap-toothed former meth user. I pause to regroup and remind myself that there is an empathy gap. I don’t want to fall into that gap. As long as a gap exists, I want to be sure I end up on the same side of it as my patients.
Ann Brady is the symptom management care coordinator at the Cancer Center, Huntington Hospital, Pasadena, California.
1. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Productions, 1937. Animated feature film.