The empathy zone

During patient experience week (23-26 March), I popped in to the very popular empathy zone, where you could experience some of the challenges facing our patients and people living in our community. For example you could put on a pair of glasses, which reduce sight, use a wheelchair or crutches, try putting on a hospital gown with an arm splint and attempt simple tasks, like threading beads, while wearing padded gloves.

I tried on a pair of goggles, to see what it would be like for a person who has glaucoma – a condition that can cause blindness if left untreated.   What I experienced were blind spots in my vision, making it very hard to see. As I banged into chairs and tables, I kept thinking how would I cope with deteriorating vision on a day-to-day basis.

So what did other people experience?

“I tried out the tilt table, which is used by the physiotherapists to help spinal and stroke patients go from lying flat to an up-right position. As I was being strapped in, two things struck me. Firstly, if you are lying on your back for long periods of time, you become very familiar with the ceiling. Wouldn’t it be great to have something interesting to look at! Secondly I was putting my safety and trust in the hands of a physiotherapist I had just met. Being reassured and treated with compassion made me feel cared for and safe. Overall it was very humbling to experience what our patients go through.” Denise Kivell, Director of Nursing.

“Have you ever tried to trace a star looking through a mirror? It’s not as easy as it sounds.   When you hold up an image in front of a mirror, it is reversed. However your brain still thinks it is looking at the real image, not the flipped image. That’s why you make mistakes. If you keep practicing, your brain will learn that you are looking at the flipped image and you will get better. This was a great exercise to experience what people with perceptual difficulties must go through”. Martin Chadwick, Director Allied Health.

“I tried to put on a pair of pyjamas with my arm in a sling. Not only was it difficult it was incredibly frustrating. For a brief minute I experienced what our patients must feel. I’ll be more mindful in the future.” Student Nurse

I believe the empathy zone is something all staff should experience, to feel what it’s like to walk in a patient’s shoes, for a short period of time.   I gained a lot from the experience and have a better understanding and awareness of how we can better support people who come under our care. This includes treating people with care, patience, compassion and dignity.  

Maybe we should run empathy sessions on a regular basis. What do you think?

Have a safe and happy Easter.



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Author: Geraint Martin

Geraint Martin was appointed Chief Executive Officer of Counties Manukau DHB in December 2006. It is one of the largest District Health Boards in New Zealand and services a population of half a million. He has significant experience over 30 years in national policy & in managing both primary and secondary care . Previously, he was Director of Health and Social Care Strategy at the Welsh Government .He authored a radical 10 year strategy of reform, including the successful “Saving 1000 lives” Campaign.Until 2004, he was CEO at Kettering General Hospital & had held senior positions in London & Birmingham.He has worked closely with clinicians in improving clinical standards,patient safety,chronic disease management & managing acute care to reduce hospital demand.In NZ, He has promoted clinical quality and leadership as central to improving patientcare. This has led to a significant increases in productivity and access, whilst maintaining financial balance. CMH has completed in 2014 a $500 m capital redevelopment programme, the largest in New Zealand. A central part of this is the establishment of Ko Awatea,the Centre for Innovation and Research which will underpin CMH as one of the the leading health systems in Australasia.In 2008, he chaired the Ministerial Review of Emergency Care in New Zealand, and in 2013 was an member of the Expert Advisory Panel on Health Sector Performance. Geraint has an MSc in Health Policy from Birmingham University .His post-graduate work has focused on health economics and Corporate Strategy . He is adjunct Professor of Healthcare Management at AUT and Victoria University, Wellington Elected in 2006 as a Companion of the Institute of Healthcare Management, previously he was an Associate Fellow at Birmingham University.He is is Chair of the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, a member of the Institute of Directors, on the Board of the NZ Institute of Health Management & previously the Board of The NZ Health Quality and Safety Commission.

2 thoughts on “The empathy zone”

  1. The feedback that we had from staff about the whole Patient Experience week and especially the Empathy Zone was amazing. It is very important to remember this; while we can never fully experience what another does as we cannot possibly feel the same joy, fear, pain, elation or anxiety. But we can expose ourselves to part of their experience so that we can empathise and show compassion.
    Staff who had visited the Empathy Zone said it had really made a difference to their understanding and thinking about how patients feel and struggle at times. I would be very supportive of having more empathy sessions.

    Lynne Maher

  2. i think this would be very useful for ALL employees.
    Combined with common respect, this made me remember a course as i work on Reception, where a Chinese women started the class talking in Chinese, of course we were all looking at each other as we didn’t understand, she kept this up with a few gesticulations and we honesltly were starting to wonder if we were in the right room. She then told us that that is how it is for a foreinger in our country without English as a second language. This made me think about how more important it was as a first contact to MMH or some people who may come through to me by mistake to try and help them as much as I could, i have even asked people in our neighbouring department to translate for me on occasion as i didn’t want the person to think they were not understood and passed around.

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