Last month we continued our examination of Dr. Herbert Swick's article "Toward a Normative Definition of Medical Professionalism." Swick included demonstrating "core humanistic values" as one of the professional behaviors that define professionalism.1 We began our discussion by defining the values of honesty and integrity, caring and compassion, and applying them to our practice. We discussed how these values form an important component of the foundation of professional behavior and give us direction when we face choices. Values help guide our actions.
This month we continue our exploration and discussion of professional behaviors by completing our examination of core humanistic values. We will discuss altruism and empathy, respect for others and trustworthiness. As we continue, we must always remember that we demonstrate our values through our actions.
Altruism and Empathy
What does the word altruism mean to you? Take a moment to think about how you would define this concept. To clarify what altruism actually means, we return to the dictionaries to get accurate definitions. Altruism means "unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others"2 or "unselfish concern for the welfare of others; selflessness."3 These definitions show that this value concerns other people and their welfare--that it is outwardly directed. EMS practitioners, when they are demonstrating professional behavior, put the welfare of other people ahead of their own.
What exactly is empathy? What do you think it means? According to Merriam-Webster, empathy is "the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts and experience of another...without having the feelings, thoughts and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner."4 This definition is somewhat complex and hard to grasp, so let's break it down. The first part is understanding, being aware of or being sensitive. If we apply this to our practice, it means we are paying attention and are "tuned in." The second part tells us that we are tuned in to feelings, thoughts and experiences. The third part tells us we are relating to other people.
Another definition says empathy is "identification with and understanding of another's situation, feelings and motives."5 Still another, "the power of understanding and imaginatively entering into another person's feelings."5 Consider these definitions. How do they apply to EMS practice--to how EMS practitioners should behave?
There was an old Star Trek episode entitled "The Empath."6 In it, Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy encountered a humanoid woman who turned out to be an empath. If someone were sick or injured, the empath could absorb that sickness or injury from that person into her own body. The sick or injured person was thus cured; then, using her own energy, the empath would cure herself. Empathy is about being able to understand another person's feelings, their emotions, and comfort them by showing that they are not alone. With empathy, we help people bear the burdens of their injuries or illnesses by providing emotional support.
Altruism and empathy are difficult words to define and difficult concepts to put into practice. We can compare them to the values of compassion and caring from last month to help us to continue developing our understanding of professional behavior.
Respect for Others
Rodney Dangerfield never got any. Aretha Franklin demanded it. R-E-S-P-E-C-T: What is it?
The American Heritage Dictionary says respect means "to feel or show deferential regard for; esteem."7 Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary says "an act of giving particular attention" and "high or special regard."8 Using these definitions, we can conclude that showing respect for others is paying particular attention to them, showing deference and due consideration for their thoughts and feelings. We might say it means treating our patients and their families the way we would want them to treat us and our family members.