Understanding your patients’ experiences


TAS BREAKFAST Robyn Thomas will explain why empathy and connecting with others are skills that can benefit patients as well as physiotherapists. Marina Williams reports.

Empathy is defined as ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another’. However, being able to naturally exhibit empathy is not a trait endemic to all people. For some, it has to be a learned skill and, according to palliative care specialist Dr Robyn Thomas, something all health professionals need to learn.

‘Empathy, along with connection with others, is vital in our work as it’s an attempt to better understand the other person by getting to know their perspective,’ says Robyn, who also teaches communications skills to health professionals. ‘I am quite passionate about communications skills, how we can teach them to clinicians. Very few of us are trained in this skill set, yet if we can better understand what our patients are feeling, what they are going through, we can help achieve better outcomes for them.’

Robyn is a member of a highly skilled multidisciplinary palliative care team of specialist doctors, nurses and allied health professionals at Royal Hobart Hospital. She initially trained and worked as a country GP in Tasmania before moving into the discipline of palliative care in 2005. Later, when working in New Zealand, a colleague introduced her to ways to better improve communication skills with patients.

Learning these ‘soft skills’ was inspiring, she says, and for the past 10 years has been teaching palliative medicine trainees in Australasia and, in a world first, to a renal multidisciplinary team in New Zealand.

Training is also provided to allied health professionals and for more than a decade Robyn has been sharing her knowledge through workshops in Australia and New Zealand. She is a fellow of the prestigious international group VitalTalk, which provides clinicians with evidence-based tools and resources to scale best practices in clinician– patient communication.

Robyn will explore the topic of empathy and share insights that are key to making a connection to others in her presentation ‘What is empathy— and how can it sustain us?’ at the Tasmania Branch Breakfast next month. She says the courses, which provide actionable insights in a relaxed, collaborative environment, are popular with health professionals from all disciplines.

‘The courses are oversubscribed, because people recognise they have no training in communication skills, in general, as they didn’t learn them in their university studies. They also recognise that they have had that awkward response in a conversation with a patient in which they didn’t quite know what to say or know that they could have communicated a response much better,’ Robyn says.

‘When you watch a really good communicator they make it look easy, but it’s not. They are using a lot of skills and what we do is break them down and teach the participant how to use them in various situations to be more confident when having conversations.’

Empathy, she says, is knowing how to respond, or act, to emotion, so mastering the art of conversation is a much-needed skill in frontline response to patient needs.

‘Patients know the difference between sympathy, empathy and compassion. They don’t want sympathy but rather understanding of what they are going through. In learning valuable communications skills of how to recognise and respond to their emotion, we can show that we better understand them and what they are going through because we are getting to know their perspective,’ Robyn says.

‘If you can address the emotion, barriers can fall away. We will be able to have high- quality conversations, enhance patient outcomes and even sustain us in our practice—empathy is good for your patients and good for you. It’s about connecting with others, which is vital to our work.’

‘What is empathy—and how can it sustain us?’ will be held on 22 November in Hobart as part of the Tasmania Branch Breakfast. For more information and to register, visit australian.physio/events. Register by 22 October and go in the draw to win a $250 ASICS voucher.

Dr Robyn Thomas is staff specialist and head of department, Palliative Care Service, at Royal Hobart Hospital/Tasmanian Health Service. Robyn works full time as a palliative care specialist and is also passionate about communication skills.

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